kaigou: this is what I do, darling (2 omg fanfic)
[personal profile] kaigou
Came across a thought-provoking (okay, given that linoleum can make me think deep thoughts, this may not be saying much) philosophical essay, ostensibly discussing whether or not Dumbledore is gay. But in the midst of tackling that question, Tamar Szabó Gendler had this to say:
...a number of leading critics of authorial intent [point out] that language is a social creation, and that authors do not have the power simply to make words mean what they choose. By this reasoning, it’s not up to Rowling to say whether Dumbledore is gay: her texts need to be allowed to speak for themselves, and each of her readers is a qualified listener.

By contrast, “intentionalist” literary theorists such as E.D. Hirsch Jr. argue that authorial intent is what fixes a text’s correct interpretation. Without such a constraint, Hirsch contends, one uses the text “merely as grist for one’s own mill.” And, at least to the extent that readers’ primary concern is with understanding what an author meant to communicate, intention is obviously central.

Isn't that the entire tension between fanfiction writers and original authors? Especially since that last sentence in the quote may appear to conclude that intention is central, but that conclusion is predicated on an assumption about a reader's primary concern. In other words: if fanfiction writers are not primarily concerned with what the "author meant to communicate" half so much as they are concerned with how the story plays out for them, then... Well, it's kind of open just how much (if any) concern there would be for author intention, if that were so.

I was thinking about this yesterday evening, and it seems to me that it's not entirely (or always) that the issue is solely with fanfiction -- that is, the act or presentation of the alternate/reader interpretation. After all, we could meta to our heart's content and we would inevitably still analysis/interpret, at some point, in a way that's contrary to the author's intentions. A good meta works on the text, but -- as I've been so recently reminded, in dealing with survey questions -- language can be a great deal more ambiguous than we realize.

So is the tension really coming from "you aren't allowed to write this" or is my sense from some author-rants correct that the underlying meaning is really, "you aren't allowed to think this"?

Ultimately, it doesn't make any difference whether or not I write fanfiction. I'm still going to develop, and then retain, an interpretation of the story, the world, the characters. I may use fanfiction to extrapolate my interpretation into other settings/conflicts, or to proselytize my interpretation to other fans, but the heart of either is my interpretation. And that's grounded in a sense that I am a qualified listener.

Carrying that further, that grounded sense could be a kind of entitlement: by reading/watching a text, I've signed up to be the other half of the tango. The author tells, and I listen, and my active listening entitles me to understand what I've heard.

Which seems rather basic, yeah, but there's something going on under there, and I haven't quite figured out a succinct finger to put on it. When authors rant -- whether it's about fanfiction, or in the most recent flailing, about e/book piracy -- I feel like I'm often picking up on a sort of entitlement from those angry authors. I mean that in the classic sense: a sort of privilege, by dint of being the One Who Speaks. Those who listen, therefore, are meant to sit there quietly and listen. When a listener writes, it's concrete evidence that this simplistic dynamic (one speaks, one listens) is no more than an illusion.

Perhaps what's twigging here is that one place online communities have really leapt forward is in speaking truth to power Those Who Do The Talking (that is, authors). But the source of that leap, I think, is drawn from the way online communities have done a lot to educate and inform fellow netizens about things like privilege, and discrimination, and Othering, and various other racist/sexist/homophobic/imperialist behaviors. Thanks to that core of activists, the concepts of 'derailing' and 'checking privilege' and so on are much more prevalent, or at least better known, than they were five, six, seven years ago.

Learning to apply the tools of identifying, analyzing, and calling out privilege may have also allowed fans to apply these same critiques elsewhere. Except that in the case of author/reader, the author's position of privilege is meritocratic, and the dynamic is (fundamentally) business, not culture. Money's exchanging hands somewhere, that is. So I'm not understood, I mean 'meritocratic' in that the author had to earn (create, revise, and convince someone to publish, etc) that standing as One Who Speaks -- it's not at all the same as being born into privilege by dint of race, religion, sexuality, or culture.

Maybe that's where my innate discomfort lies, with the author/writer tension: because I cannot justifiably condemn all authors as blind to their privilege (in the way I might with imperialism or sexism or the rape culture). I mean, they had to exert effort to get to where they are, so it's not all the same dynamic (in the creation of privilege) as what you see when the person could have that privilege just by being born. Does that make the entitlement any less grating? Hardly. But it does change the dynamic when it comes to a critique.

Another way to put that: if a cissex, cisgender, het, protestant, white man stays secure in his privilege by refusing to learn to see, then a meritocratic privilege results from refusing to keep seeing: from learning to become blind.

Instead of seeing the author/fanfiction tension in terms of the classic upper/lower of the oppressor/oppressed, maybe the dynamic is better expressed as: authors are collaborators. I do use that word in its wartime sense (though more strongly, for the sake of argument, than if I were speaking solely of my own perspective).

The most recent debate about piracy and international distribution and corporate interests had notes of that. I was getting senses of some of these intentions/implications in some of the posts I read. There's the "we're all from the same group" (you love stories, I love stories) as though authors and writers come from a shared wellspring -- here, I'll call it the 'story-culture' as analogy to an ethnicity or significant shared trait. From the readers, there's the "you sold out to the man!" which brings in shades of accusing collaborators with the oppressive/occupying governing force. And there's also the "you don't see the costs we're paying," from the readers, trying to check the authors' (earned) privilege as a result of pleasing The Man... and the authors, in turn, defending themselves as unable/powerless to control this, or do that, or change this, when it comes to corporate powers-that-be.

In fact, I'd even go so far as to say that some authorial comments raised strong analogies for me of privileged collaborators insisting they'd worked hard to earn their position (gain the trust of oppressors who'd otherwise see them as the enemy) and that any change would have to come from somewhere else (the masses yearning to have cheaper/more accessible books). I'm not sure where I'm going with this -- I'm still meandering around on it, so carry it in any direction in comments -- but some of the conversations about that piracy/distribution fail also reminded me of the way USian history has traversed with each wave of immigrants. That is: one wave comes in, must struggle against vicious racism and stereotyping, manages to get a foothold and a little bit of dignity, but feels that holding too tenuous to risk it on behalf of the next wave of (a different ethnicity of) immigrants. Meanwhile, those at the very top are just fine with all of it, because it means those at the bottom are too busy fighting over scraps to have the energy to spare on whether it wouldn't be better to turn those energies against the system that benefits from the antagonism.

Not that I'm fomenting rebellion against the corporate publishers (and frankly, I have no idea how that would even work), but I just find it peculiar, and intriguing, that the dynamic of author vs. fanfiction writer seems to track closely to some of these other analogies. Far better, I mean, than it does to the strict oppressor/oppressed dynamic that I also saw tossed around in the most recent fail. What that means, or what else that might be telling us about the system and our parts in it, I've not yet figured out.

Date: 22 Feb 2011 07:08 pm (UTC)
dejla: (Default)
From: [personal profile] dejla
I--am going to go away and think about this.

However, as an author and a reader, what I've always thought that writing/reading was, was an attempt to communicate something--to tell a story, to tell a story that explains how I feel about something, or just to tell a story about what I think might happen on a certain Thursday if the sky turned red.

In the same way, when I read, I assume (and I know what assuming does) that the author wants to communicate something to me. I may not always get what the author is trying to say. In some cases, I may get what he/she is saying, but I may not like it, or I may say, "but what if" and get an entirely new idea from it. It's not the story the author wanted to tell me, but it's the story I really wanted to read, and since the author didn't write it, I might go away and write it myself. In which case we go right back to the communication problem I started with.

Still, in most cases I am more interested in what the author wants to tell me than in what other people think about what the author was saying, should have been saying, or didn't say. In other words, as far as I'm concerned, authorial intent trumps reader wishes. But that's only my opinion, and I don't expect to have others agree with me.

It seems to me that an author/reader communication disconnection is a failure on someone's part, or on both parts, not necessarily just a new view of the story.

Date: 23 Feb 2011 05:30 pm (UTC)
dejla: (Default)
From: [personal profile] dejla
When I say failure, I'm thinking of it in probably milder terms than you are. Multiple interpretations might strengthen certain texts, yes. Something like Tolkien, definitely. Maybe I'm getting away from the story angle and thinking about something like meta, where what you put on the page is the only chance you have to tell your reader what you mean.

I was thinking of fanfiction more in regard to visual media as opposed to books. Book fanfiction is -- more problematic? No, maybe not. If I ever had a novel published and a reader wrote fanfiction that argued that, say, two characters I had written as straight were not, I might find it very upsetting, but that's due to my feeling that sexual identity is central to (how can I put this?) the character's identity. He wouldn't be the person I wrote. On the other hand, in that case, it's not my novel they're writing about, is it?

I can understand the reactions of some authors -- it's the possessive nature of creation. I don't know how I would react to it.

mean, what would happen if, say, all fanfiction summarily disappeared and were replaced by extensive footnoted meta in which each reader argued for their re/interpretation of events to posit that, say, Harry and Snape could've ended up co-conspirators in a stolen VCR ring? That the now-fiction were presented as non-fiction-arguments for extrapolation, extension, interpretation, and so on?

Ummm... I wouldn't read it. I'm sorry. When I read an essay, I bring an entirely different mind-set to it.

Now I'm confused. I'm not sure that I understood completely what you were writing.

Going away again.

Date: 22 Feb 2011 07:35 pm (UTC)
mediumrawr: (Default)
From: [personal profile] mediumrawr
There are two problems with the assertions of critics like Hirsch.

First, their idea of the "correct interpretation" is arbitrary. They center the idea of 'correct interpretation' around authorial intent because that seems right to them, because intra-press western culture has attached a great deal of importance to the author. (It's not alone in this. A number of other societies have attached this importance as well. But, notably, Western culture between the Romans and the press did not.) But if one were to decide that there had to be a 'correct interpretation', there's no actual reason to fixate it on the author. Why not on the intent of the literary agent, or the editor, or the author's mother whose eternal love (or lack thereof) is that which the work (maybe) responds to?

The second is the lack of understanding of what actually happens when readers try to get back to authorial intent. Most readers do try to do this. (Some readers, us pretentious literature students, may say we don't.) But they don't get back to authorial intent; they get back to a character inside their heads who they think of as the author but never really is.

When Rowling first tried to get published, as is I think now pretty well known, her agent got her to change her publishing name from Joanne Rowling to J. K. Rowling specifically to hide from readers that the author of the book they were picking up was female. How many people read at least a couple of books of Harry Potter thinking that the author was male? Could they have truly gotten back to authorial intent, under that mistaken assumption? In fact, barring a psychic connection, you'll never really get back to the author. Even when someone like Poe writes something like "The Philosophy of Composition", tracing back over everything they did writing a story, you never know the accuracy or the honesty of their recollections.

I'm not one to buy too much into what I see as online fandom's obsessive interest in politically correct degradation of language, which is often no more than an inconvenience and frequently a method for bringing low those who try to present contrary and conservative opinions. To me, the arguments about authorial privilege re fanwork are increasingly ridiculous; they're so caught up, on both sides, with this pretentious, righteous language.

The bottom line is that we've already won. Fanfic has got out of the jar and there's no putting it back in. You can get along with the creators and the readers of fanfic or you can not get along with them, but the latter action means lower sales, means losing the loudest fans, means a lot of emotional investment into something you can't control. As a creator, you'd better have a really good reason for all that, since you can never hope to win.

A lot of authors, though, don't really understand what's going on. There's a fandom language that is spoken by fans, but a lot of writers don't come out of fandom. Their first contact with this culture is when people start writing about their stuff, and maybe the first thing they feel is the same as when you show someone something you've been trying to get just right for so long, and their response is, "Well, you need to fix this. And this, and this." And right next to them, their entire support structure, from editors to publishers, are telling them that their legal rights to their work may be endangered by the existence of that stuff.

I'm hesitant to turn that kind of person into the villain for class war. Remember that authors aren't used to being celebrities, and may not realize that every gut thing they happen to say to an interviewer about copyright is going to get turned into the fandom football, on top of which a dozen big-name-linebacker-fans will leap on top of in a huge, messy pile-on.

If something I said turned into that, from some community I didn't know, my immediate reaction wouldn't be to change my mind. It would, "Holy shit, those people are crazy."

Whoa, long.

At the risk of sounding privileged...

Date: 23 Feb 2011 04:54 am (UTC)
nagasvoice: lj default (Default)
From: [personal profile] nagasvoice
Bit of a rant here. I suspect you're right that the politics of colonialism are a good model for the system.
For example:
author/agent/editor-art director/publisher/advance man: large chain bookbuyer/media reviewers/store manager/store clerk/reader. In my set of associations there, nearly all the power is in the pinch point of distribution there in the middle, with the publisher and the large chain book buyer. Or I could agree there are two different chains of power coupled in the center.
Each of those chains looks very like the classes of a colonial power structure.
When the Rajah declaims to his Vizier what shall be done to please the English Queen, it may be twirled around quite fantastically and totally subverted by the time it gets down to the guy selling oranges, but the guy at the gate taking delivery has no way of distinguishing how this happened, somewhere between the orders of the housekeeper vs. the Vizier.
I'm thinking particularly here of the decisions made about book covers. All kinds of pragmatic details go into making that cover happen, and they ain't all pretty. ("Yeah, Darryl Sweet would be great, but we don't have the $$ for him, and besides, his style doesn't suit the tone of this work at all.")
If somebody hasn't workshopped their writing extensively, that cover is often the first shock for a newly published writer about how other people may "misinterpret" their work.
In my own case, back in the 80's, the publisher had the artist totally cover up the hero's face so you couldn't tell what he looked like, largely because they were very sure from their own in-house stats that a brown person on the cover would sell fewer books, and they were trying hard to retain *some* integrity, so at least they avoided the cover-art lie of making him blonde and blue-eyed. Yes, really. I was happy to get that much deference to my wishes, as opposed to the market biases of the time, or editorial perception of it.
There's another aspect to this too. I've read articles where authors are basically screaming at their readers, "No, you're getting it all wrong, you idjiots!!" Besides being oddly annoying, to me, it seems unprofessional. What do you think critics will do to it? The most strict of genre critics don't all agree to a conventional interpretation, either.
Yes, I get that writers are (in old skool theory) supposed to discourage fanfic. Dumb, I think, given that it's free and extra PR. And flattering. Yeah, yeah, small-time here, I take it as a great compliment.
But the weird shrill tone of those writers sounds like an authorial control-freak losing it.
I have never had this particular reaction to a piece of fanfic, but then I haven't had enough readers out there writing back at me, in enough volume, that inevitably somebody is going to hit the PANIC button tucked under there. (Yeah, you see the big red thing? Kinda awkward to get to, usually, but dayuuum, it's got a helluva klaxon on it, don't it?)
Given enough people doing fanfic, maybe a few of them just find that chink in the armor and crawl into unexpected places and make authors start running about with the flapping muppet arms in panic. They sound like they'e screaming about roaches.
Never say never--I certainly can't say it couldn't happen to me. (I know there are some distortions I would object to mightily, for political reasons, and I'm sure this is what some folks mean by 'Yeah, Hollywood got hold of it.')
If you think readers are bad, how trusting are you about how a movie director and various actors will hash it up? Just look a skeptical actor in the eye, and try saying that kind of silly business again.
The idea of owning your characters well enough to try to control all the readers' interpretation of them?
About as practical as trying to stop a kid in rubber boots from splashing in puddles. And it can be so happy and creative!
I happen to like fanfic. I like seeing other people's interpretations of characters. I like multiple readings of the same source material, the same way as I read my own meanings into other people's ambiguous song lyrics. I like seeing kaleidoscopic reflections on things I didn't think about before.


Date: 23 Feb 2011 05:16 am (UTC)
nagasvoice: lj default (Default)
From: [personal profile] nagasvoice
Bwahaahah, now *that's* style! Get that man more sushi!

Date: 23 Feb 2011 07:25 am (UTC)
mediumrawr: (Default)
From: [personal profile] mediumrawr
I don't think that authors take on the language of the privileged (or whatever you want to call it); I think it's that the privileged adopt the language of ownership rights. The author uses the language of ownership rights because his culture tells him he has ownership over his book. (He probably doesn't understand the history that would help him see the separate problems with that statement, any more than I understand about minor league baseball, because neither of us have ever been much interested in making studies about those respective topics.) The unfairly privileged use the language of ownership rights because their subculture also couches things in terms of their ownership, doesn't it? I don't think there's anything so awful about the language, except maybe that it's disturbingly easy to co-opt.

Forgive me, the rest is going to be less academic and a lot more controversial. You did ask for longer.

...But I get profoundly uncomfortable when I see things like:

"Maybe that's where my innate discomfort lies, with the author/writer tension: because I cannot justifiably condemn all authors as blind to their privilege (in the way I might with imperialism or sexism or the rape culture).

Of course, that's just from your post, but I see that kind of incredibly exclusive language all over fandom, and it makes it hard for me, very nearly the "cissex, cisgender, het, protestant, white man", to participate. I often feel like fandom, or at least the most meta oriented part of fandom, increasingly defines itself by opposition to the institutions of power. Along the way, the people who occupy the institutions of power become both alienated and misunderstood, and so we haven't 'checked privilege' at all; we've created a subculture of privilege that happens to use language of opposition. I often think that an author, looking in on fandom, must sometimes see things the way I also sometimes see them: "It doesn't matter what I say; so long as they know who I am and what I look like, it won't matter."

So, in terms of educating people about discrimination, and oppression, and Othering, fandom is a massive success.

Date: 23 Feb 2011 08:53 am (UTC)
mediumrawr: (Default)
From: [personal profile] mediumrawr
Uh, repair? Now I'm in over my head.

But a few suggestions:

First, authors have as much of a right to be a part of the conversation as the rest of us. That means engaging them on subjects about which there is disagreement, not retreating into fandom where we can have our angry wank, confident that everyone we care about will fawn upon us for agreeing with what everyone else is saying. Often having a productive actual conversation is impossible, but we can still try to step into the shoes of the person saying things and understand where they're coming from when they say these things.

Second, try to actually go over fanfic which comments on and expands an 'original' work. As much as we might want to get up on our high horses and talk about how all fanfic is great and transformative, the truth is that only a very small proportion of it is meaningfully so, and much of that is ignored because it's not Harry/Draco neverending epic gothic romance fic. I would love to see communities devoted to advanced criticism of really high-level fanfiction. This both (a) helps fanfic readers think about the original work in a more aware way and (b) provides something people can point to when they try to talk to authors and the rest of the outside world about fandom.

Third... fanfic of fanfic. Nothing helps you sympathize with another person like being physically in their place. Something like the Remix community or whatever is useful for that.

Fourth, stop hating. I guess it's a lot to ask for everyone to wake up and be Zen with the world, but really... fandom is frequently so quick to jump to the most negative conclusions, and opposing voices either get drowned out or don't bother to pipe up at all, because the best they can do is ruin their reputation in the community. It would be nice to take a few moments, ask for clarification, and ruminate on exactly what was actually said, before jumping to conclusions. That applies to authors and to fans who happen to say dumb or contrary things both.

No, that last one is too much to wish for. Scratch that one. What I really want is the second one - for people to stop complaining that fanfiction is generally literary and to pull out the stuff that specifically is and actually talk about it. A recs community that actually gets into the ways that specific fanfic alters its source work. I'm already warm thinking about it.

whois

kaigou: this is what I do, darling (Default)
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"When you make the finding yourself— even if you're the last person on Earth to see the light— you'll never forget it." —Carl Sagan

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