Dead Texts (Or, Why I'm Opposed to Those Who Oppose Fanfiction)

In my quest to become more enthusiastic about Scotland, someone suggested that I start watching Starz' Outlander. It would, they assured me, make me think about men in kilts in an entirely different light. I'd heard about the series in passing -- steamy historical romance with a bit more political intrigue than your classic Harlequin fare (and the occasional graphic rape scene thrown in "for good measure"). It didn't really sound like something I'd be interested in, but I decided to download the first episode and give it a try. While I was reading the plot synopsis, the author's name struck a cord of familiarity: Diana Gabaldon. Where had I heard that name before? And then I remembered:

UGH. She's the one from Fandom Wank.

Back in 2010, Diana Gabaldon posted on her blog about fanfiction writers. Specifically fanfiction writers who wrote about Outlander. Her post contained this now oft-quoted line: "I think [writing fanfiction is] immoral, I know it's illegal, and it makes me want to barf whenever I've inadvertently encountered some of it involving my characters."

(Quick! We must preserve the artistic integrity of the Highlands romance genre!)

Back in high school, smothered under the outrageously boring texts foisted upon us in AP Literature and Language, I stumbled upon a life-changing epiphany: fanfiction could make any book, no matter how dull, bearable. William Golding's The Lord of the Flies became one of my favorite novels when I started jotting down margin notes about Jack and Ralph sneaking off into the wilderness to "ensnare the beast" together. (Let's talk about the homoeroticism in those hunt scenes for a moment, amirite?) I even enrolled in an independent study course in Biblical Greek so that I could better understand the nuances of the New Testament -- as, for example, the diction used in Mark (kataphilien, as opposed to the more subdued philien) indicated that Judas' kiss in the Garden of Gethsemane was "fervent" and "repeated." So I signed up for an entire year of advanced classical language instruction so that I could write more informed Biblical ship manifestos.

I probably should be embarrassed by my youthful forays into fanfiction; my days of posting in online archives are long over. However, I still feel obligated to defend fanfiction for future generations of bibliophiles. See, the books that we read in AP Literature and Language (and that I later read as an English major at Barnard College) seemed to be, for lack of a better word, dead. You would read the works, as the authors wrote them, and then discuss what the authors' intentions were in academic terms. When it came to canonical literature, there seemed to be tons of space for these "great authors" (mostly white, mostly male, mostly straight) . . . but precious little space for someone like me.

Fanfiction (and later reader-response criticism) changed all of that for me. I stumbled on (the much-reviled "Pit of Voles") during my sophomore year of high school and was struck by a sudden realization that literature could be alive. It could grow and change through thousands of texts -- published books, archived fanfics, edited fanvids, ship manifestos, etc. The worlds that I'd read about, in Wuthering Heights or Paradise Lost, were no longer abstruse extended metaphors that needed to be dissected according to the author's wishes. They were playgrounds where we could twist and leap and sprint to whatever endings we dreamed up in our fevered imaginations. They were the testing sites for our first romantic fantasies. They were the "Mary Sues" that helped us explore our own identities and recognize which attributes we wanted to develop in ourselves. These were perpetually-transforming organic worlds that had life outside of their creators.

And yes, many (nay, most) fanfics are really bad. As in, "Pass the Sporks and Bleeprin" bad. But the point of fanfiction isn't to "out-write" the original author. No one ever tried to get published off of a PWP drabble that they posted in the early hours of the morning when they were supposed to be doing their homework. You could hold up examples to the contrary, like Cassandra Clare and E.L. James, but these are few and far between.

And it's not as if fanfiction doesn't have a well-established and respected history. Take, for instance, Sir Walter Raleigh's progressively feminist "Nymph's Reply to the Shepherd." Raleigh read Christopher Marlowe's poem ("The Passionate Shepherd to His Love") and was inspired to continue the narrative from the perspective of the once-voiceless nymph. If Marlowe had been Diana Gabaldon, I dare say that he would have tried to have "The Nymph's Reply" barred from England's Helicon back in 1600. (See also John Donne's cynical "The Bait," also inspired by Marlowe -- and also possibly on the chopping-block in a Gabaldon-based world.) Works like "Nymph's Reply" and "The Bait" don't detract from Marlowe's original work in any way. In fact, I strongly believe that they make reading "Passionate Shepherd" far more enjoyable. That text becomes part of a larger conversation, rooted in multiple divergent perspectives. And as more and more authors become engaged in that conversation, the more the work becomes accessible to the general public. The next thing you know, communities that have been historically silenced (youth, women, racial/ethnic minorities, LGBTQ, etc.) start feeling as though they can take "ownership" of the work and create their own adaptations and responses.

That's how the world ended up with outstanding postcolonial "fanfiction" like Jean Rhys' Wide Sargasso Sea (Jane Eyre told from the perspective of Mr. Rochester's first wife -- trapped in an oppressive marriage and displaced in European society), Aimé Césaire's Une Tempête (in which the black slave Caliban, from Shakespeare's The Tempest, rises up against his white master Propsero), and Alice Randall's The Wind Done Gone (which critiques Gone with the Wind by approaching the text through the perspective of Scarlett O'Hara's slaves). How could one ever argue that these texts make the original works any "less"? On the contrary, they enrich the conversation around the original works and keep them relevant in an ever-changing world. They are life-support for antiquated authors; they keep their works alive.

(You know, the kind of fanfiction that's one of Time's 100 best English-language novels since 1923 and #94 on Modern Library's 100 Best Novels.)

So when I encounter authors like Diana Gabaldon who seek to stifle that conversation, who strive to make sure that their voices are the only ones that can be heard, that immediately sends up red flags for me. I watched the first few episodes of Outlander but, after a few weeks of scouring the Internet for fan-works and realizing that Gabaldon's world begins and ends with her books, I got bored and turned the show off. Why would I ever settle for a dead world when I could spend time in one that's alive and waiting for all sorts of people (including me and my students) to make a home there?

Day Fourteen (31 Days of Trip Planning): I've done a lousy job at updating my trip planning on this blog. Suffice to say, I've definitely gotten in more than 31 days. I'm almost completely booked up for my time in Dublin. Most recently, I booked my ticket for QUEST-LOVE: An Omnibus of Adventure Plays, Collapsing Horse's foray into serialized episodic theater-making. However, for as much as I have every single detail of my time in Dublin planned out, I have no idea what I'm doing in London. Perhaps that's for the best. I could use a few weeks of relaxing in coffee shops.

Also, credit where credit's due, Outlander did get me much more interested in the idea of national identity as it pertains to Scottish/English local youth theatres in contrast to the larger UK national youth theatres -- especially with the rather tumultuous history between the two countries. (I'm especially interested in light of tense US identity politics, specifically between the South/Midwest [the "Bible Belt" and the "Heartland"] and the Coastal Regions.) Looking forward to getting to know both the Scottish Youth Theatre and the National Theatre of Scotland (Let the Right One In! Black Watch!) better.

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