Monday, December 8, 2008

Fan Fiction? (An Experiment)

(c) 1955 United Feature Syndicate
Okay, so today's post, or my post for the next few days, whatever this turns out to be, is sort of an experiment. I'm sitting here with my lunch, and in between bites I'm trying to say something interesting and meaningful over the next few minutes. So here goes...

And no, this isn't Super Wonder Cross Part 3. You know what? By Thursday night at 11:59. I'm working on it; there really is something coming together there, and I think it'll be interesting, but I set myself up for a lot of thinking when I said I was going to explain what the D-pad "means," and I intend to fulfill that promise. You can't rush this kind of high-level time-wasting.

Well, really what I want to talk about, in mostly abstract (=vague on account of laziness, hey, and haste) terms is the boundary between canonical and apocryphal. I realized that someone else was on the same wavelength that I was when, earlier this semester, I was reading Michael Chabon's essay collection Maps and Legends, which, yes, I am citing for the second time in two consecutive postings. In the book, in an essay entitled "Fan Fictions: On Sherlock Holmes"...wait. I am a huge fan of the book as object, so let's do this the way Michael Chabon does it. The essay is really titled



I apologize; I know that "center" is obsolete HTML code now, but people, I don't have time to do this properly. We're in a hurry here! Anyway, back to the posting. Chabon asserts that "all literature, highbrow or low, from the Aeneid onward, is fan fiction" (56). I realize that to leave it at that is to do Chabon a bit of a misservice; some readers (okay, okay, my reader, singular...okay, nobody really reads this, sigh) may agree or disagree with that broad statement without really agreeing with Michael Chabon in a significant sense. Okay, whatever; if you like essays, you should go get this book, and then you can decide for yourself if you agree with him or not. If you don't feel a driving urge to go out and read this essay, then probably the fine distinction between what Chabon means and what I'm going to represent his statement as meaning probably won't matter to you. The big thing is, I'd go back further; I think the Iliad and the Odyssey represent what he's calling fan fiction, though probably Chabon hasn't had the exposure to Parry and Lord that I have. I'd even say that probably the Hebrew Bible (=Old Testament, sort of) is kind of like fan fiction, but then I'd be burned at the stake, so I won't say that.

But it wasn't Chabon that sparked this posting. I think really looking back at the history of literature, and tracing, as here, "Western" literature from its earliest extant constituents, shows that fiction, a shocking amount of the time, can't help but be fan fiction. As long as I've been aware that there was mythological material and in fact pre-Homeric oral material that influenced the final Iliad and Odyssey as we have them (if you'll allow me to duck any awkward questions about what those really are), I've been aware that there's a kind of natural impulse in the author to create something that responds to something the author loves. I think that must be the basis for pretty much any creative literature, even historical fiction, probably even, gasp, the biography. Just read Schulz and Peanuts. It's an entertaining book, but is it an accurate picture of Charles Schulz? I really don't think so. Aside from what Schulz's own family think of the book, there's the question of whether or not a theory-based approach to a person's life can possibly yield anything like an accurate picture. It can't; theories are far too simple to encapsulate the nuance and variety of an individual's life, even the most boring individual in history (whoever that might be). David Michaelis seems to think the best way to understand Charles Schulz is to view him as a poor miserable bastard. I assume this comes from a tendentious reading of the Peanuts corpus, one that I can certainly understand, but not one in which I participate. There's much more to Peanuts than melancholy, folks! Anyway, it's not methodologically sound to read the creator solely from the creation.

And yes, I realize I am vastly misrepresenting Schulz and Peanuts. But Michaelis started it.

Oh, yeah, I had a blog going here. Look, the point is really that often when we face an interesting text, or an interesting bunch of stories, or an interesting person, or whatever, we can't help but want to put in our two cents. Occasionally that two cents emerges as fiction, in one sense or another. I was painfully reminded of that this afternoon when I was surfing the internet looking for a text of Avellaneda's Segundo tomo del ingenioso hidalgo Don Quijote de la Mancha, which happily is available en espanol at, when I ran into this old thread on Comic Book Resources which, incidentally, directed me to the same Spanish text of Avellaneda's DQ2 I've just hyperlinked. There's one post in the thread that asks, "Is this the earliest known Fan-fic?"

Two replies try to answer the question, neither to my satisfaction. Both authors implicitly offer definitions of "Fan-fic" that are just too reductive to be particularly useful. I guess this post, which is now at the 45-minute mark (subtracting interruptions to go check on dinner-in-progress in the kitchen), was really just my way belated response. Is it the first fan fic? No, not by a loooong shot. But it is fan fic, and if it's theft, too, well, sometimes that's just the way literature works. To be continued...? Feel free to weigh in on what fan fiction's real relationship to literature is. Is it really just the (sorry) mostly derivative stuff on the internet where Mulder and Scully finally fall in love? Or is it broader than that? Is it all imaginative literature? Can it be art, if we adopt a narrower definition? I think I'll end this thing here...

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