Networked_Performance

Reblogged the id of writing

[Image: The intensely homoerotic Buffy and Faith storyline in Buffy the Vampire Slayer was developed partly as a direct response to fanfic writers’ interpretations of the show in this light] As an undergraduate I read English Language and Literature at one of the oldest and most traditional universities in the world. Even the non-canonical texts came from a canon of the non-canonical – hence, by definition, whatever our course declared to be literature, ipso facto, was such. Recently, though, in the course of our Arts Council research I’ve browsed a fair amount of creative writing online – and found myself increasingly unsure about notions of the canonical or literary in the context of the net.

In search of some perspective, I met up with Roz Kaveney, an expert on one type of creative writing both quintessentially internet-based, and also quintessentially non-‘literary’. Fanfic – or fan fiction – is any story written using the characters, settings and conventions of a fictional universe – ‘fandom’ – such as that of Star Trek.

I learned from Roz that fanfic proper appeared with the Trekkies. The internet made it a mass phenomenon, as fans took advantage of low digital barriers to self-publication to evolve this new way of engaging with a fictional world. These days, while keen fanfic writers maintain their own archives, Livejournal is the hub of fan activity. Across the net, fans of particular shows, characters or fandoms gravitate in online communities, share work, commission stories about particular fandoms or pairings in ‘ficathons’, proof-read and critique one another’s stories and collaboratively generate massive archives of often elaborate, imaginative, well-written – and sometimes disturbing – narratives inspired by existing fictional universes.

Fanfic works through peer-to-peer commissioning and editing, and repurposing of others’ imaginative works as the springboard for its own ‘transformative’ endeavors. And this collaborative and (by the standards to which the ‘literary’ tradition of writing holds itself) ‘derivative’ nature contrasts intriguingly with the fixation on originality so inseparable from literary fiction. This fixation with originality and identifiable authorship is, in turn, inseparable from the economics that have underpinned the print industry for the last three centuries.

So, predictably, in this world of fanfic money is something of a contested issue. Keen to avoid rocking the copyright boat and alienate the creators of the fandoms they love, fanfic writers self-police strictly: attempting to monetize your work is frowned upon. “Printing out a few copies for friends is one thing,” Roz says, “but flogging your work at conventions just isn’t done.” Rather, it recalls Chris Anderson et al’s theories of the internet as a peer-to-peer economy of abundance. Fans write it because they love the fandoms, identify with particular characters, and enjoy exchanging these nuggets of narrative passion with others of the same persuasion. Stories become transactional units in a gift economy driven by the ludic desire to requite a free gift of pleasure with a return in kind.

If the literary is the critical and isolationist superego of writing, then, fanfic is the id: messy, pleasure-driven, reluctant to censor its proclivities. Existing fictional universes. It’s always been transgressive, genderbending, complicatedly queer. Slashfic (erotic fanfic) appeared at the same time as fanfic, and slash stories often see heterosexual fans penning homoerotic slash; any taboo can be the subject of a slash story.

I’ve argued elsewhere that the net follows a fairly consistent pattern not of replicating, but of inverting the tradition of the book: boundedness becomes boundlessness, authority becomes unreliable opinion, fixity becomes fluidity, physicality becomes virtuality, the presumption of universality becomes an awareness of the contextual nature of everything written there. So I did a speculative compare and contrast between the mainstream literary world and that of fanfic. And the principle seems to hold for this most popular internet writing form: take the literary world, and turn it inside-out.

Fanfic is 90-95% female, in contrast with the canon of authors I studied at college. It’s often collaborative, and engages with an existing fictional universe, while – say – literary fiction is generally written by single individuals and is fixated on the idea of originality “without realising”, Roz says, “how overrated this concept has been since the Romantic era”. Fanfic is structured socially around a gift economy of stories, and money is frowned upon; literature writers usuall aspire to earning a living from their work. Fanfic is pleasure-oriented; literature intellectual; fanfic is non-hierarchical and networked, while literature tends towards canons.

And last, but not least, fanfic in its current state evolved online, and is impressively well-supported in that space by its communities – a stark contrast to the modest successes of more ‘literary’ outputs online. Perhaps, with a long tradition of print publishing, the literary world has simply not yet paid much attention to the internet, and this will change as it becomes more familiar and pervasive. Or, perhaps, more of the attributes that constitute what we think of as ‘literary’ content are more inseparable from meatspace than might be immediately apparent.

I’ll write more about all this as our research goes on. But meanwhile this cursory glance at fan fiction invites many questions about the forms natural to the internet and to print, about the social and cultural assumptions that underpin these two, and about the implications of each for the economics and value-systems of cultural production. [posted by sebastian mary on
Future of the Book]


Feb 1, 15:50
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