Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

The fanfic disposition

with 6 comments

Yesterday, I mentioned Roxane Gay’s insightful opinion piece on the proposed HBO series Confederate, which was headlined “I Don’t Want to Watch Slavery Fan Fiction.” I’m still sorting out my own feelings toward this show, an alternate history set in the present day in which the South won the Civil War, but I found myself agreeing with just about everything that Gay writes, particularly when she confesses to her own ambivalence:

As a writer, I never wish to put constraints upon creativity nor do I think anything is off limits to someone simply because of who they are. [Creators] Mr. Benioff and Mr. Weiss are indeed white and they have as much a right to create this reimagining of slavery as anyone. That’s what I’m supposed to say, but it is not at all how I feel.

And I was especially struck by Gay’s comparison of the show’s premise to fanfic. Her essay, which appeared in the New York Times, only uses the phrase “fan fiction” once, linking to a tweet from the critic Pilot Bacon, and while its use in reference to Confederate isn’t literally true—at least not if we define fanfic as a derivative work based on characters or ideas by another author—its connotations are clear. Fairly or not, it encapsulates the notion that David Benioff and D.B. Weiss are appropriating existing images and themes to further their own artistic interests.

Even if we table, for now, the question of whether the criticism is justified, it’s worth looking at the history of the word “fanfic” as a pejorative term. I’ve used it that way here myself, particularly in reference to works of art that amount to authorial wish fulfillment toward the characters, like the epilogue to Ann Patchett’s Bel Canto. (Looking back at my old posts, I see that I even once used it to describe a scene in one of my own novels.) Watching The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies recently with my wife, I commented that certain scenes, like the big fight at Dol Guldur, felt like fanfic, except that Peter Jackson was somehow able to get Cate Blanchett, Ian McKellen, Hugo Weaving, and Christopher Lee to reprise all their old roles. And you often see such comparisons made by critics. Gavia Baker-Whitelaw devoted an entire article on The Daily Dot to the ways in which J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Cursed Child resembled a wok of “badfic,” while Ian Crouch of The New Yorker tried to parse the difference between fanfic and such works as Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea:

Fan fiction is surely not a new phenomenon, nor is it an uninteresting one, but it is different in kind and quality from a work like Rhys’s, or, to take a recent example, Cynthia Ozick’s remarkable new novel, Foreign Bodies, which reimagines the particulars of The Ambassadors, by Henry James. Not only do these books interpret texts in the public domain…but they do so with an admirable combination of respect and originality.

As a teenager, I wrote a lot of X-Files fanfic, mostly because I knew that it would give me a readily available audience for the kind of science fiction that I liked, and although I look back on that period in my life with enormous affection—I think about it almost every day—I’m also aware of the limitations that it imposed on my development as a writer. The trouble with fanfic is that it allows you to produce massive amounts of material while systematically avoiding the single hardest element of fiction: the creation of imaginary human beings capable of sustaining our interest and sympathy. It begins in an enviable position, with a cast of characters to which the reader is already emotionally attached. As a result, the writer can easily be left in a state of arrested development, with superb technical skills when it comes to writing about the inner life of existing characters, but little sense of how to do it from scratch. This even holds true when the writer is going back to characters that he or she originally created or realized onscreen. When J.K. Rowling revisits her most famous series or Peter Jackson gives us a fight scene with Elrond and the Ringwraiths, there’s an inescapable sense that all of the heavy lifting took place at an earlier stage. These artists are trading on the affection that we hold toward narrative decisions made years ago, instead of drawing us into the story in the moment. And even when the name on the title page or the director’s credit is the same, readers and viewers can sense when creators are indulging themselves, rather than following the logic of the underlying material.

This all means that fanfic, at its worst, is a code word for a kind of sentimentality, as John Gardner describes it in The Art of Fiction:

If the storyteller appears to stock response (our love of God or country, our pity for the downtrodden, the presumed warm feelings all decent people have for children and small animals)…then the effect is sentimentality, and no reader who’s experienced the power of real fiction will be pleased by it.

Replace “children and small animals” with Harry Potter and Gandalf, and you have a concise description of how fanfic works, encouraging readers to plow through tens of thousands of words because of the hard work of imaginative empathy that someone else did long ago. When Gay and Bacon compare Confederate to fan fiction, I think that this is what they mean. It isn’t drawing on existing characters, but on a collection of ideas, images, and historical events that carry an overwhelming emotional charge before Benioff and Weiss have written a line. You could argue that countless works of art have done the same thing—the canonical work of Civil War fanfic has got to be Gone With the Wind—but if slavery seems somehow different now, it’s largely because of the timing, as Gay notes: “We do not make art in a vacuum isolated from sociopolitical context. We live in a starkly divided country with a president who is shamefully ill equipped to bridge that divide.” Benioff and Weiss spent years developing their premise, and when they began, they couldn’t have anticipated the environment in which their announcement would be received. I don’t want the project to be canceled, which would have a freezing effect throughout the industry, but they should act as if they’re going to be held to a higher standard. Because they will be.

6 Responses

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  1. I don’t know anything about this proposed HBO show. But I would point to a comparative example, Amazon’s “The Man in the High Castle”. It’s based on a Philip K. Dick Novel about an alternative history where we lost WWII, with the US being divided between the German Reich and Japanese Empire.

    It in no way romanticizes the Nazis, although PKD’s interest in it was partly his own German ancestry. PKD considered doing a sequel but was too depressed by studying the Nazis. The point is that both the novel and the show explore difficult issues through alternative history. It also helps us see authoritarianism in a new light, by bringing it into our own world of America.

    I’d also note that timing was a major issue for “The Man in the High Castle”. Many of those dark ideas from the early 20th century feel like they are gaining new life in the present sociopolitical environment. The populist and reactionary right-wing is organizing, in a way maybe not seen since those earlier dark days. That is all the more reason to imaginatively explore what the Nazis meant back then and still mean today.

    I’m not sure why anyone would assume the HBO show is going to be slavery fan fiction. That is unless those involved have at some point given voice to support for the Confederacy, slavery, white supremacy, etc. Otherwise, it’s a judgment based on a projection. So it seems to me.

    Benjamin David Steele

    July 28, 2017 at 10:30 am

  2. As far as Confederate is concerned, it’s a pretty obvious alternative history. And FWIW even without the war slavery would have been gone for other socioeconomic reasons like changes in industrialisation and technology, increases in education etc. I refuse to believe that Americans would continue to stand for it as time went on. So on little evidence beyond your blog and wikipedia, my main objection to the premise would be dumbness. Now, a USA where slavery lingered until later and was dismantled under different circumstances (you’d know better than me about resonances of the Civil war) might make an interesting story, but it would have to be subtle, not something I associate with people involved with Game of Thrones (which I managed to watch for 1.5 episodes before decided I had better things to do).

    As regards fanfic, I think the treatment you outline has an interesting parallel with that of sf itself. Quite a few folks I know of a somewhat literary bent essentially think about sf as follows: If it’s sf it’s no good and if it’s good it not sf. Margaret Atwood (to take the obvious example), to these guys, does not write sf. Why? ‘It’s too good to be sf.’ 1984 is not sf, it’s dystopia (but a dystopia like Hunger Games is sf because it does not meet their literary criteria). Why can something not be fanfic and art? Is Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead fanfic? No, because it adds so much the the characters that it does more than put the existing ones in new situations? Or yes, because it so clearly comes partly out of a love for the material and a desire to spend some more time there and explore it in a way the original author did not? Is it not fanfic just because Stoppard is so witty? Yes, he has his own agenda, his own something to say. But is he not also fulfilling some of the functions of fanfic? I think fanfic is really the desire to do something with another authors world that the author did not do (and where the word ‘fan’ implies appreciation of the original rather than denigration, though does not exclude criticism).

    What of Lang and Haggard’s The World’s Desire? The Incompleat Enchanter?

    A text can be good and fanfic or bad and fanfic or whatever. Most epic pooh (Moorcock’s term for Epic Fantasy, esp that that follows Tolkien) is really disguised Tolkien fanfic (and awful). I imagine similar charges could be laid at the more derivative writers in any field. Change the names and we’re in Gone with the Wind part III, or Shane: the Revenge or whatever.

    The comment “It isn’t drawing on existing characters, but on a collection of ideas, images, and historical events that carry an overwhelming emotional charge” — well yes, but does that mean we don’t use well-known and important historical events in fiction? I think it also needs to be viewed against the desire for Hollywood to have a ‘free hit’ with everything it does. Why are so few big movies or TV series really brand new? Why make a movie based around the board game Battleships or around Transformers? Because those names are culturally embedded and do all the ‘heavy lifting’ in advertising the work. Sequels are largely fanfic. So are comic book movies, and so on.

    Random stream of thought ends, with apologies.


    July 29, 2017 at 5:50 am

  3. @Darren – “And FWIW even without the war slavery would have been gone for other socioeconomic reasons like changes in industrialisation and technology, increases in education etc.”

    I’d argue that it was complicated. Slavery slowly evolved over centuries, as feudalism was ending and capitalism was becoming the new dominant order. From feudal serfs to indentured servants to racial slaves. Slavery was always strongly tied to and integrated within the early capitalist system of production and trade. In fact, capitalism as we know it would not have come into existence without slavery. It was a key component.

    Also, there is a reason that white Southerners associated slavery with wage labor. Prior to the Civil War, agriculture was becoming less profitable for slavery, as plantations were costly business ventures requiring immense investment. To maintain profits, an increasing number of plantation owners were turning to industry. Jefferson began to industrialize his slavery in the latter part of his life. By the time the Civil War had begun, a large number of slavers were being hired out for factory work in the growing cities that even then were becoming industrialized.

    It’s far from clear that slavery was going to inevitably end, at least not quickly. Slavery could be ended by law, as happened with the British Empire. But industrial capitalism by itself worked well with slavery. If the Confederacy had won the war, the slaveholding economic and political elites probably would have shut down immigration in order to increase the value of slave labor. Basic manual labor, which a slave can do just as well and more cheaply than unionized wage labor, remained the majority of work needed doing until deindustrialization began.

    Consider the fact that capitalism to this day remains mixed up with slavery. There are more slaves in the world today than before the Civil War. Many countries in the Western economies do business with have working conditions that are severely oppressive, such as in China where workers are locked in factories for months. The US government is slow to pass trade bans, even when known slavery is occurring. It was only last year that there was legislation made in dealing with slavery in the seafood industry that supplies US markets.

    “I refuse to believe that Americans would continue to stand for it as time went on.”

    Humans, sadly, stand for all kinds of things.

    Why do we continue to stand for slavery to this day? I suppose it’s the same reason that people stood for for racialized slavery for more than two centuries, from the mid-17th century to the mid-19th century. And I suppose it’s the same reason that people stood for other forms of slavery in the millennia before that. I might add that the enslavement of blacks in the US continued even after the Civil War, as part and parcel of the larger systemic racism of Jim Crow, KKK, lynchings, church burnings and bombings, race riots and wars (e.g., Tulsa), sundown towns, redlining, etc. My dad grew up in a sundown town in the 1950s and I grew up in a sundown suburb in the 1980s. To this day, blacks are still racially prejudiced against and targeted for police brutality and imprisonment.

    Why do Americans allow this to continue?

    It’s similar to why Americans for generations now have stood for their government overthrowing democratically-elected leaders, allying with authoritarian regimes, promoting fascism in poor countries, funding and training terrorist and militant groups, selling cluster bombs to be used on civilians, initiating wars of aggression, extraordinary rendition, secret torture prisons, depleted uranium weapons that poison populations, oppressive sanctions, and regularly killing millions of innocent people. Just in the War on Terror, in response to a few thousand innocents dying in the 9/11 attack, the US has killed several million innocents, many of them in the illegal and unconstitutional war of aggression against Iraq.

    Why do humans ever tolerate what they do? It’s a good question. But a long history of violence and oppression has proven humans are capable of tolerating some truly horrific forms of abuse and systems of power.

    That is why alternative histories are useful. It isn’t about romanticizing the past. Rather, it shows how the past still exists in the present. Racist social control and exploitation didn’t end with the Civil War, not any more than authoritarianism ended with the Nazis. Such things change over time, but they surprisingly are able to maintain their hold within social systems and the human psyche. Alternative histories can force us to see what we otherwise would ignore. The fictional component gives us just enough psychological distance to look more clearly at uncomfortable realities.

    Benjamin David Steele

    July 29, 2017 at 11:11 am

  4. I noticed an error in spelling. The misspelling changes the meaning of the sentence in a rather odd way:

    “By the time the Civil War had begun, a large number of slavers were being hired out for factory work in the growing cities that even then were becoming industrialized.”

    Obviously, the slavers weren’t being hired out. It was the slavers who were hiring out the slaves. That probably didn’t need to be clarified, but it irritated me to see such an obvious mistake.

    If you could edit the correction, I’d appreciate it. Or else leave this comment here as a note to my above comment.

    Benjamin David Steele

    July 29, 2017 at 11:16 am

  5. If you’re curious about how re-enslavement happened after the Civil War, I discussed the topic in a post from a few years back:

    It’s a part of history few Americans know about. Until I read the book I mention in the post, I didn’t know about it and I grew up in the Deep South. It isn’t the kind of thing people talk about, because of all the psychological baggage involved: shame, anger, trauma, etc.

    That is how people stand such things, even while they are happening. They usually just don’t talk about it. People know and don’t know all kinds of things. Many Germans during Nazi rule heard rumors about what was happening to Jews and others, but they were just occasional rumors that were uncomfortable to hear. Many Germans preferred to believe the official claim that the Jews were being sent to other countries.

    Now imagine a racial order that existed for centuries in early America. That is how re-enslavement happened. The racial order seemed so normal to Americans that re-enslavement could happen without most whites even noticing. All that was required of them was to simply not talk about it. As with slavery, only a small percentage of the population directly dealt with the ugliest aspects of this racial social control.

    Benjamin David Steele

    July 29, 2017 at 11:27 am

  6. I also live in the deep South. When I see the symbols (flags) and attitudes and holidays of the confederacy continue to be feted here in the name of remembering one’s heritage, I do not think it is a great leap to imagine that slavery could have persisted as a confederate institution as suggested by this imagined alternative history. It is still too infrequent that these memorials and symbols are preserved in an effort at truth and reconciliation regarding the oppressive hurtfulness and abuse that slavery heaped upon its victims. . I think it will be interesting to see this series, I hope that it will be well-done, and respectful of the suffering caused by slavery and racism. I fear that it will be all too easy to see it as “that other world” and alternative, and overlook the mirror it holds up to our own current realities and attitudes. Thank you for your this interesting piece.


    July 29, 2017 at 6:04 pm

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