Yesterday a story by Lev Grossman appeared on the Time Magazine website, titled “The Boy Who Lived Forever” (soon to be available in print). The occasion of the story, of course, is the imminent conclusion of the Harry Potter saga, at least in movie form. However, the article is really all about fanfiction. Grossman is amazingly thorough. In his five pages he covers the various genres of fanfiction – including some of the ones that aren’t always mentioned in articles sympathetic to fanfic, like hurt/comfort, noncon, mpreg and incest – the breadth of fanfiction, the legal status of fanfiction, and even the occasional rants from published authors who feel offended or violated by the existence of fanfiction. He also touches on the aspects of fanfiction that express diverse sexualities and obsessions, and he manages it with wit and aplomb. It is obvious that Grossman did his homework and I really must commend him for it.
Best of all, Grossman touches on the fundamental issue raised by fan fiction: What does it mean to be creative? He is aware (perhaps coached by some fannish informants, hmm?) that many more accepted and prestigious forms of literature resemble fanfiction in their taking up of previously existing characters and worlds to create a new work. I was very pleased to see him mentioning the fact that until the era of Romanticism in the 19th century, the prevalent cultural definition of “originality” had nothing to do with the creation of something completely new. In other words, the idea that valid artistic expression must aspire to complete originality is one of recent coinage – at least in the western context. Reading Grossman’s piece recalled the satisfaction I felt when reading a certain essay by Thomas Sobchack; how enlightening it was to learn that, before the Romantics, it was not only permitted but expected that a writer would work within previously formulas, structures, storyworlds, myths and histories! The artist’s goal was an original restatement, not a discrete new world.
I’m pretty sure that if you look it up in the dictionary, the definition of creativity is “original recombination”. Sure, Grossman acknowledges the deep emotional connection an author may have with his/her characters. He can understand and appreciate the perspectives of the Anne Rices and Robin Hobbses and Orson Scott Cards out there – and so can many fanfiction authors. As someone who has written an original character now and then, I can also appreciate that rather irrational feeling of ownership. But as Grossman perceptively points out, if an author is like a parent to their characters, it is the wise parent who realizes that their children are going to go forth into the world to have lives, connections, even identities apart from them. In our current age convergence and participatory culture, this is not just a possibility – it’s a guarantee.
“There may be hurt in that,” Grossman concludes, “but there is a great deal of comfort as well.” And it is a comfort to know that our stories go on and on (neverending, maybe?) – that Harry Potter will live and live forever, as will Frodo and Luke Skywalker and Buffy and the Winchesters and so many others.
Note: Thanks to Baranduin for bringing this article to my attention