Aeschylus and Vergil used pre-existing characters and plots in their tragedies and epics. Shakespeare and Dante stole their characters and plots from earlier narratives. Grant Morrison's Doom Patrol #57 rewrites the whole history of the Doom Patrol while remaining consistent with the events as published. Post-Homeric poetry steals Achilles and Patroclus from the Iliad, and presents them as explicitly sexual lovers. Shakespearean scholars write papers on the homosexual subtexts in the plays. I write stories about Blake and Avon from Blake's 7 having sex.
How can you decide where 'fanfiction' begins and 'literature', 'textual criticism' or 'multiple authorship' ends, without recourse to the law of copyright or the hierarchy of institutions and genres? Is Jean Rhys's Wide Sargasso Sea fanfiction, or James Joyce's Ulysses? Are all writers on Buffy or Sweet Valley High or Batman or the 'X' titles (other than their 'creators') legalized fanfiction writers? Why is an academic paper on the homosexual subtexts in The Merchant of Venice legitimate criticism and a narrative about the sexual relationship between Kirk and Spock moronic 'fanfiction'?
You could take it even further, of course, and say that any reading of a text is already a fanfiction: I will never have read exactly the same book as you or seen exactly the same film. In reading, we 'write' what we are reading in our heads, finding our own connections in and our own way through serial texts, tracing our own narrative, identifying points that are open to our own experience and/or our own politics: points that could change us, or change the world, or be changed. And then some of us write it down outside our heads. With added sex scenes.
Hey, it's just like life, isn't it? Identify a (meta)narrative: live in it, eroticize it, change it, expose it, play with it, cross it over with other narratives...
In other words, fanfiction as concept and practice can be central to one of the most important political / cultural / aesthetic problems of our time: is it possible to create anything new?
The answer (for someone who's as big a fan of poststructuralism as me) is: yes and no. No, because in order to be legible and/or livable, any creation, whether of a new gender, a new political order or a new artwork, must refer to the system within which it was created (for example, the language and narrative conventions within which fiction is written). Yes, because no system can successfully and completely determine and police what is sayable or livable within that system.
Fanfiction writers tacitly and cheerfully accept this 'yes and no' and use it, creatively, terroristically, and pleasurably inhabiting this border zone between reproducing the old and creating the new. Broadly enough speaking, all writing could be seen as fanfiction: creative interventions into an inherited system.
There is, though, an important difference between me and AeschylusVergilDanteShakespeareJoyce as 'fanfic writers' more narrowly. I'd prefer to see the difference not in terms of 'high' and 'low' culture, but in terms of the 'canon' each of us uses and our relation to it. The dead men I've listed are canon; they inherit a literary tradition willy-nilly, contribute to it (with more or less of a sense of inferiority and belatedness in relation to what has come before) and form a fairly coherent literary-canonical genealogy. The way that fanfiction (narrowly defined) interferes with its canon is different, partly because it's usually created in a different medium and for a smaller audience than its canon, partly because its canon is a particular media text with a moreorless defined group of 'fans', rather than the authorized and protected foundations of Western literature.
In both cases, canon is there, it exists outside and before us and our writing and cannot be simply argued away; in both cases, canon is hotly contested and multiply read; but in the case of media-fanfiction writers, canon has been chosen - a commitment of love for, and engagement with, the text has been made by the fan writer.
Within the smallish and circumscribed community of a fandom, fanfiction works as a place to critique canon, a place to mourn the losses and redress the injustices and hurt canon inflicts on us, a place to celebrate the joys canon gives us, and a place to present multiple readings of canon in response to other fans: a place where bitter argument, which in academic circles would probably swiftly degenerate into name-calling ("Prof. Potter's reading of The Merchant of Venice is laughably partial and fatally flawed by its special pleading"), can be displaced into the coexistence of diverse stories. The quasiscientific burden of proof current in literary criticism ("back up your argument! refer to the text!") is replaced by the suspension of disbelief ("I don't see it that way, but go write the story and I'll tell you if I could be convinced"). Canon is a small world - in my case, 52 50-minute episodes of Blake's 7 - but the strategies we use to change it, politicize it, queer it, open it up, and coexist in diversity within a shared commitment to it, are revolutionary, practical, beautiful and easily transferable to a larger world.
It's overly Utopian, I know, and maybe it's just a dream - but as Blake says in the third episode of Blake's 7 (and again in a thousand fan stories): "Some dreams are worth having."
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