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.
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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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