Monday, August 13, 2012

Morrison: Misguided? Misinformed? or Malicious? [a mst-ing, pt. 1]

We're voting for all three!

KarraCrow and annajcook here taking a break from our stay-cation during the month of August to bring you a full-scale MST-ing of today's piece of shoddy journalism barely-researched commentary by author Ewan Morrison on the phenomena known as "fan fiction (fanfic)" - a brave new world of well ... we'll let him tell you.

And then we'll snark about it.

In detail, and in serial form -- 'cause there's just too much to say about the wrong of this piece (both in the casual sense and in the more egregious "you just let your nasty prejudice show there" sense) to let it go.

Here's part-the-first (Morrison in block quotes, and us not ... just, you know, so we're clear about authorship and everything here):
If you were to lock a group of pop culture junkies and TV addicts in a bunker, tell them that the end of the world had arrived and that they had to preserve culture for posterity by writing books, what they would produce would be fan fiction (fanfic). 
A: So ... fan fiction is ... the modern-day equivalent of the final scene in Fahrenheit 451? I'm confused.
KC: Poser panic.
This is actually the plot of a piece of fanfic from the 1950s, in which sci-fi fans survive Armageddon and rebuild civilisation in their own image. 
KC: Fanfic or fic about fans?
A: He's clearly confusing the two. I mean, by that definition? Don DeLillo and Nick Hornby have been writing fan fiction for decades, a revelation which might come as a hell of a shock to them both!
KC: Well, I don't know if it would come as much of a shock to Nick Hornby. He's pretty chill. DeLillo on the other hand might well blow up!
It may seem like a joke, but for many the rise of fanfic is "the end of the world".
KC: Like you! Judging by how you go on.....
AJC: I like how "the end of the world" is in scare quotes ... so he can disown it? Or is he quoting this nebulous "many" directly?
Fanfic is seen as the lowest point we've reached in the history of culture – it's crass, sycophantic, celebrity-obsessed, naive, badly written, derivative, consumerist, unoriginal – anti-original. 
KC: Because we currently live with such a glut of original cultural objects. I'd also like to point out that the "is seen as" construction is usually used to lead to something like "but you'd be wrong because..." but here I have the horrible feeling it's going to lead to "...and you'd be absolutely right!" With all due apologies to Tom Stoppard.
A: And with all due respect to Umberto Eco, I feel like this guy's been reading and re-reading "Travels in Hyperreality" a few too many times?
KC: And not getting the joke.
A: SO not getting the joke.
From this perspective it's a disaster when a work of fanfic becomes the world's number one bestseller and kickstarts a global trend. 
A: Note how we've neatly bracketed harsh judgments off in a way that lets them stand and yet leaves room to disclaim them as his own later on...
KC: Well, it's the best thing to do, really. You don't want to have to justify any of this rubbish, do you?
As we all know, Fifty Shades of Grey, originated as a piece of fanfic based on the Twilight series. Since it hit 31 million sales in 37 countries worried voices are asking: is this the beginning of an era in which fanfic overthrows original creation? 
A: If I had a quarter for every time someone used Fifty Shades as shorthand for "all that's gone wrong with the world" I'd be able to pay off my student loans from all four years of grad school!
KC: Amen.
A: And can we also pause for a minute to contemplate the (supposedly) neat and tidy division between "fanfic" and "original creation"? As if transformative works lack in originality or creativity?
It's tempting to get caught up in paradigm-shift apocalypticism, but a closer inspection reveals that fanfic is not new at all. There have been phases, fads, peaks and controversies throughout its history and it displays and incredibly diverse range of sub-genres. There's crossover, AU, Hentai, OoC, Uber, Mary Sue, slash fic, hate fic, anti fic and even wing fic (in which familiar characters sprout wings and discover their new beauty through acts of mid-air coitus). So where did this terrifying range of forms begin? And is Fifty Shades really a threat to culture? 
A: I'm fascinated by the way Fifty Shades and all it stands for is situated as a "threat to culture" like it's something that stands outside the culture? Isn't that, like, materially impossible unless you change the laws of physics?
KC: Plus he's conflated genres and descriptive tags in a way that makes the whole thing a nonsense. OOC is a description of something in a story, not of an entire story itself (usually). A "Mary Sue" can be a type of story or character. Plus, not to quibble or anything, but some of the characters have wings to start with.
It's time to learn some of the jargon that fans use to describe their fic. 
A: Except it helps if you actually know what the jargon means instead of making shit up, which is what you do in more than one place below ...
KC: See above! Perhaps if he'd gone to the right sites...? Maybe...dare I say it... asked a few fanfic writers? But, no: clearly, he knows whereof he speaks. After all, fanfic is only another form of fandom and, as we all know, any idiot can talk about that.
A: He could also have read a few back issues of Transformative Works and Cultures, the peer-reviewed journal published by the Organization of Transformative Works. It's like he doesn't know how to do a basic literature review or environmental scan.
Folklore fanfic 
If one sees fanfic as "the work of amateurs retelling existing stories", then one would have to conclude that the number one book in the middle ages – the Bible – was a work of fanfic, as Matthew, Mark, Luke and John were non-professionals retelling the same story about the same character.
KC: It's an interesting thought, but not original. I feel someone is owed a footnote.
However, such a definition of fanfic is skewed historically. There were no fans in the middle ages, and there were also no authors.
KC: Oh dear. I hear a thousand medievalists screaming... And is his habit of setting up straw men and then kicking them over starting to irritate anyone but me? I mean, it's a valid rhetorical technique but annoying when repeated this frequently.
A: *raises hand* Also, while it's valid to make the argument that the "middle ages" had no "fans" and no "authors" in the modern sense, is this really the time or place to open the door to that sort of discussion? It could go on for years! It's the stuff upon which whole damn academic careers are built!

(In an aside to our cat: "Oh, this is very boring, kitten, when you could be reading about fisting!")
If we see fanfic as "the reworking of another author's characters" then this form really only appears for the first time in history with the invention of legal authorship in the 18th century through copyright and intellectual property laws, after the invention of the printing press. 
KC: So...wait a minute. You need to have legal authority in order to author something? If you don't have that you're just...what? wanking? Damn. I can think of lots of folks who'd be surprised to hear that. Marlowe, Webster... And if you think of 'fanfic' in broader, more flexible terms as more of an homage to someone else's work, then lots and lots and lots of things are fanfic prior to the creation of the legal status of "author." Or does he want to argue that everything prior to the creation of copyright just sort of oozed out of a gestalt hivemind?
After all, you can't have derivative works or copies if there are no regulations over what constitutes original works, or separates ownership from theft. Predating this change, with the exception of educated men of letters and Christian scholars, the populace experienced stories only through the aural folklore tradition.
KC: Okay, now you can hear me screaming. Because not only does this leave out Middle Eastern scholars (unlikely to be Christians) and Asian scholars (ditto), thus creating an argument only Niall Ferguson could love ...
A: *pooh*pooh* Niall Ferguson *pooh*pooh*
KC: ... it also seems to suggest that the printing press was invented sometime in the 18th century. While the majority of the population might well have experienced story-telling largely in the form of oral or aural entertainment, the storytellers (who might be listeners in another context, by the way) got stories from all over the place, including broadsheets, chapbooks, pamphlets, stolen versions of plays, etc., etc. It is impossible to calculate how many "readers" a given early publication had because of the odds it was read aloud to a much larger audience than ever actually sat down and read it over to themselves. He's making a very complex relationship ridiculously simple.
A: *headdesk*
Such tales were re-tellings and re-makings of the same stories over generations – this was a manuscript culture in which texts were open to intervention and were not fixed. 
A: Gosh, let's take a wander around this history of storytelling and print culture ... as an historian I kinda approve, but ... I'm sorry, haven't you already said this doesn't apply?
Nobody owned them and they were based on stock characters – The rake, the temptress, the Stephron and the Phyllis (Shepherd & Shepherdess), the priest, the devil, the good Samaritan.
KC: And now we're showing off... And does this little fun parade go all the way up to the 18th century, too? Stock characters are, well, stock in lots of places and lots of stories but they sure as hell aren't all there is. Plus there are plenty of authors who introduce a stock character only to fuck with it: Dogberry comes right to mind. As does Falstaff. Enter Comic Drunken Soldier Number 75 -- except not. We could also get deeply sidetracked by what happened with this kind of thing -- in the UK alone -- with non-English authors...Irish, for example! The Irish Paddy was a stock character basically up to Playboy of the Western World and you can still see shadows of him -- and her -- right into the 21st century. But there are all kinds of authors -- Sheridan springs to mind -- who fuck with the paradigm.
In England The Romance of the Rose was the paradigmatic example of the medieval form: one writer would begin the story and another would complete it.
KC: Isn't that a translation? Although the story took lots of forms -- like a fanfic. Oh, wait...
Even Shakespeare, did not own the stories in his plays. A patron would commission him to retell a story and he was paid in royalties. All stories within the medieval period were re-workings of stories about the same characters, but we could not call them fanfic as copyright law and the printing press had not yet sectioned off the professional, paid, copyright owner of original texts, from the rest of the populace, creating a subclass of fans.
A: I'm concerned about the choice of the term "subclass" here. I sense a foreboding sort of feeling come upon me ...
KC: I'm concerned about the 'all stories.' All? Are you sure? Have you read 'em all? Know where they come from? Traced provenance? Also, he's using commas like Laura Ingalls Wilder: every sentence gets a sprinkling whether or not it needs 'em!

And on that note -- stay tuned, folks. You know there's more.