So carving off characters can be a way to comment on the original work—to expand on its themes, to examine what it erased, to update it, to teach folks about it, or just to enjoy it (and surely enjoyment is an important goal of lots of literature, not excluding the Sherlock Holmes stories). Interacting with literature and appreciating literature means, in no small part, talking back to literature. And a big way in which people talk back to literature is by dissecting it, reassembling it, and making it their own.
Again, that deconstruction can sometimes be ugly. Not every use of Sherlock Holmes is going to be pretty, or make the Doyle Estate happy. No doubt there’s X-rated Sherlock/Watson slash fiction out there that would make Conan Doyle rise from his grave, if he could manage it. But to say that it’s a crime against literature to reuse Sherlock Holmes is like saying that Doyle committed a crime against literature by turning Dupin into Holmes. Artists and writers always engage with and respond to other writers. That’s how art gets made. And that’s why it’s a good thing for culture, for literature, and for Doyle himself that it looks like Holmes will finally be completely free to be used, abused, and celebrated by everybody, free of charge.
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I’d like to draw your attention back to an image I had used in another context, namely about boys/girls and the assumptions about/representations of in manga, and talk with y’all a little about Zolo. Now, you have to bear in mind that my first encounter with One Piece was a non-licensed translation dub of the TV anime. After that, I began to regularly follow the series while living in Japan, so I mostly read it in the weekly Shōnen Jump‘s I would dig out of garbage cans and recycle piles on Tuesdays (for the trash cans) and Wednesdays (for the recycling piles). At no point was it ever unclear to me that ゾロ was a take on the Johnston McCulley character Don Diego de la Vega, aka Zorro. I was a huge fan of the 50s Zorro television show that ran on syndicated TV when I was growing up. There was no mistaking: ゾロ was Zorro.
Fast forward a few years, and I am picking out the books for my “What is Manga?” class, for which I decide to use Oda’s One Piece as representative of the shōnen demographic. A few days before class, I sat down to read the licensed translation, so as to refresh my memory, and I come across the follow anachronism: Zolo. After a few minutes of obligatory “wat”s, I finally came around and tried to think why it was they would have done this. When One Piece was scanlated, the name was at least translated as Zoro, so the similarity would be apparent. Was this an attempt to bring back Rolo’s, which, while delicious, I don’t see flying off shelves nowadays awash in candies more flashy marketing than chocolate and caramel? It was actually just before–or perhaps even in the midst of–the class in which we discussed One Piece that I realized there was a very simple reason why you would translate ゾロ as Zolo: licensing. Zorro, like Mickey and Donald and Superman and Kitty-chan, is a diligently guarded media commodity, so, while one might conceivably be able to get away with aping Zorro in Japan, it would be much harder to get away with this in the US and the larger English language market, where Zorro media are still being produced to this day.
This past weekend, Heather Hogan posted a thought-provoking piece to AfterEllen, which prompted me to reflect on conversations I’ve been having about sexuality in/and fandom. Hogan’s piece, but to an even greater extent, the comments on it, helped me to articulate some of the reasons I am protective of my corner of fandom on LJ/DW, because the conversations I’m able to have there, especially when it comes to emotional questions like character hate, are so much more satisfying than those I encounter in the greater blogosphere, academic and popular media-oriented (in which category I would include AfterEllen). When it comes to these intimate questions about media representations of queer lives, especially the character arcs of out queer characters in long-arc television series, I find a fannish vocabulary to be absolutely fundamental to the conversation.
I should, before I say anything else on this subject, admit that I actively avoid industry-connected conversations about series with open canons. One of the more revealing comments on Hogan’s piece admonished AfterEllen’s mission as one of “sucking up to” those in industry, including writers, producers, and actors, because it is owned by Logo, and thus explicitly exists to serve its interests. (Of course, LJ is not free from serving corporate interests, but its fannish content is less explicitly connected to these.) In any case, when I read this comment on AfterEllen, I breathed a sigh of relief, remembering how grateful I am for fandom’s generally accepted etiquette when it comes to a relationship to the industry — particularly in my recent experiences with RPF, I’ve seen how seriously this is taken, but also more generally, there is an enforced and productive distance between fan activities and the creators of sourcetexts, bridged only at specific moments for specific purposes, when desires converge. This is not the case for AfterEllen, or, perhaps not unrelatedly, for the academy (although the academy has a self-deprecating tendency to assume that no one of much importance would be interested, anyway), and therefore, these venues’ critical rhetoric inevitably takes a different shape from the fannish.
Another caveat: I’m glad that the writers at AfterEllen do what they do, and I think that the space they provide for lesbians, bisexuals, and other queer and questioning women (I can’t speak to their record on trans inclusivity, but it’s important to talk about), is incredibly valuable. I admire their interest in actively following as many media franchises as they do, keeping ever-vigilant about the representation of queer identity, sexuality, and experience. This work is very different from the work I most admire in fandom, but the two share much in the way of critical stakes. To put it as plainly as possible, while acknowledging that I’m surely missing a lot of context, what AfterEllen does is critique queer representations as they happen, making sure to take note when established stereotypes have been uncritically put into play, speaking on behalf of an invested queer female audience that longs for complex representations of queer women’s lives in narratives across media. Fandom, as such, does not have this explicit investment. However, (and any kind of statement on fandom as a whole is bound to be controversial, so bear with me), fandom does have a complementary investment in using the most intriguing available sourcetexts from narratives across media to generate critical analysis and artful, transformational fanworks. Because of this investment, fandom is, I think, well-equipped to offer a different angle on the question posed by Hogan’s title, about why we hate on certain fictional characters, and the storyworlds that give them life.
This answer entails a shift in focus best described by Henry Jenkins in Textual Poachers: “Fandom celebrates not exceptional texts but rather exceptional readings.” (291) In other words, fandom sees criticism (whether it takes the form of meta, fic, art, vids, whatever) as an active part of the meaning-making process which begins in the sourcetext, and this speaks to the heart of this emotional question about hatred, or, as we might call it, character bashing. Of course, that term is significant (particularly here, where it speaks sharply to other histories of bashing), because it reveals a space where fandom has a somewhat better-established distinction between sourcetext and analysis than non-explicitly fannish media analysis: character bashing is distinct from writer-bashing (although both persist, sadly, in a variety of fandoms), and both of these terms can be strategically deployed or wholeheartedly rejected in favor of the fanwork-creation response mode. In this mode, fanworks can give queer characters the love they deserve, while remaining critical of the under-thought adherence to stereotypes on the part of the writers, which soured our initial readings of the sourcetext.
What I see in fandom, and fandom alone (well, perhaps also in academic feminist and queer criticism, see for example the inimitable Sara Ahmed’s literary analysis in The Promise of Happiness), is an insistence on breathing life into characters insufficiently realized in-story due to an unfortunate fusion of marginal social location and the ignorance of the writers. However, it’s an approach not easily incorporated into more mainstream critical practices. Which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, of course — just another reason I’m glad I have a place to go when I want to channel my nerdrage productively.
I wanted to write something about the recent online dust-up (micro-kerfuffle?) in media studies sparked by Ian Bogost’s post, Against Aca-Fandom, which riffed off of Jason Mittell’s essay On Disliking Mad Men and in turn sparked another post from Henry Jenkins, On Mad Men, Aca-Fandom, and the Goals of Cultural Criticism. But the more I tried to disentangle the various threads (in these posts, and the comments to them, and Twitter, and elsewhere) the less clear I became about the substance of Bogost’s critique and its relationship to Mittell’s essay. So I decided to go back to the beginning and look again at what Mittell actually wrote about Mad Men. I should probably caveat that I am a fan of Mad Men, and a semi-fan of Mittell’s work (dude kind of lost me with his posts on the final season of Lost).
So Jason Mittell vs. Mad Men: he starts by saying that on paper, he should like it as a fan of a certain brand of cable-style “quality TV” which falls within the genre of complex serialized narratives that he’s made a name for himself out of analyzing and championing. Moreover, his peer group of critics and academics all seem to love the show. Which leaves him at great pains to try to advance a critique of the show which is not a critique of its fans/his friends — “that I can offer my negative take on the series without implicating its fans in my critique” — by “highlight[ing] [his] own aesthetic response to shed some light on the mechanics of taste and televisual pleasure.” So far, so good, right? (Though I’m not entirely sure what he means by “aesthetic response”, which seems to be a synonym for affect, as he repeatedly links it to pleasure while bracketing off his respect for the caliber of the acting, writing, set design, etc. as objective qualities which fail nevertheless to provide him with pleasure.)
But he chooses an odd strategy to insulate fans from his critique, by articulating his “absence of pleasure” in Mad Men “dialogically, in comparison [with] what the show’s admirers find so enjoyable. In discussing Mad Men with friends and reading celebratory criticism, I believe the three core types of pleasure that they take from the show (and that evade me) are in the visual splendor of its period style, the subtextual commentary on American history and identity, and the emotional resonance to be found with the characters and their dramas.” Spoiler alert: each of these “core types of pleasure” end up eluding Mittell, and he never ends up reconciling his displeasure with his friends’ enjoyment of the show.
Mittell never makes clear the origin or status of the types of pleasure he describes — specifically, whether they’re inherent to the show, cultivated by the fans, or forged in complicity between the fans and the show’s creators. But his displeasure — his inability to find pleasure in Mad Men, to recognize himself amongst his peers as a fan of the show — circles around contradiction and ambivalence. He can’t find pleasure in the contradiction between the glossy veneer of the show’s period style and its cultural critique, in the ambivalent politics of “social critique [which] seems to promote a sense of superiority to the characters and the 1960s milieu, while simultaneously inviting us to return to this unpleasant place each week.” He’s left cold by the narrative’s “emotional distance”, the characters “we are seemingly supposed to find… both appealing and repellent at the same time”: Mittell “ultimately doesn’t care about these people.”
At one point Mittell, discussing Betty Draper in the first season, describes her as the character he found “most off-putting”, with her depiction in the show “making us complicit in her degradation and generating contempt for her frail character.” Yet later on he reserves special contempt (“disgust and disdain”) for the lead character Don Draper, who he deems less sympathetic than “quality TV”‘s murderous rogues gallery of Tony Soprano, Dexter Morgan, or Vic Mackey. Mittell cites an episode where Don ruins his daughter’s birthday party as cause for singular scorn: “as a father, I found this unmotivated behavior a step too far.”
In a suggestive phrasing, Mittell suggest that “[t]he missing ingredient from Draper and nearly all of Mad Men‘s characters is empathy, as virtually nobody’s behavior or situation invites me to place myself in their shoes. Instead, I watch the characters from an emotional remove….” But surely the lack of empathy that Mittell locates here resides in himself; he eschews complicity with Betty’s plight, and actively disidentifies with Don — a man with “the most agency” and “copious opportunities” who “created his own destiny”, “a charmed life of limitless professional and romantic opportunity.” I can’t speak to Mittell’s love life, but surely some of the phrasing he uses to describe Don’s achievements and capabilities could also apply to a certain degree to his own position as a tenured media studies professor with several publications and a solid reputation in the field — solid enough at least to be invited to contribute to a volume on a show that he doesn’t even watch?
My take on Mad Men is that the show operates in a deeply ironic mode — contradiction and ambivalence are features, not bugs. What Mittell identifies as incongruities and incompatibilities in his three core types of pleasure are in fact irresolvable and a continued source of tension for the viewer that alternately evoke empathy and distancing. The aesthetic of the show thus lies much closer to modernist novels than the “serial fiction of the nineteenth century” to which Mittell has frequently compared recent the complex serialized narratives of shows like The Wire which he favors. For me, the subtext of Mittell’s complaint is his refusal or inability to find pleasure in that ironic mode, to secure a pleasurable place as audience and potential fan within those contradictions and ambivalences that threaten to overwhelm him with complicity and contempt. The pleasures of Mad Men, and the experience of being a fan of the series, thus remain opaque to him as they don’t align with his own.
Yet I think the experiences that he describes, even as he rejects them — complicity, contempt, disidentification — can also function as valuable critical tools for the aca-fan. If aca-fandom is to extend beyond the purely celebratory, the range of affect in question should encompass more than pleasure. Perhaps what we really need is an aca-fandom capable of operating in ironic modes of critique.
We are all familiar with the elements of fiction: plot, character, theme, setting, point of view.
When a writer decides to set a story in San Francisco in 1980, or in Bonn in 1950, or in her home town the year she was twenty, there’s research involved. What did the place look like? What were the landmarks? What was the weather like? What was under construction? What blooms in which seasons?
The more familiarity the writer has with the place, the better and more vivid the story.
And, no one thinks it’s cheating if a writer uses a real place for the setting of a story. Quite the reverse.
No one thinks it’s “better” or “more creative” to make up a setting from scratch instead of using an already existing city or countryside. (In fact, the genres where making up a setting from scratch is normally necessary, like SF or fantasy, are often dissed by lovers of literary fiction.)
A large part of the joy of reading, say, Robert Parker’s Spenser novels is enjoying Boston through his eyes. The entire genre of travel literature lets us all explore, fictionally and nonfictionally, places we already know and love.
Fan fiction does exactly this same thing, but with character instead of setting.
The last go-round, this spring, regarding the legitimacy and definitions of fan fiction (and this is a topic that comes around a lot on the guitar) seemed to be very focused on copyright restrictions and authorial control. The fantasy author Diana Gabaldon, in blog posts that were mostly, alas, deleted afterward, took serious offense at fan fiction and was soundly and elegantly rebutted by another author at Bookshop, Livejournal.com, May 3, 2010.
Then, in related developments, the well-known blog BoingBoing listed a bunch of Pulitzer Prize winning works that can be defined as fan fiction, prompting cofax7 to offer a definition of the genre (Dreamwidth.org, cofax7, May 28, 2010). If you read her post, do read the comments too, for more nuances and discussion. On the other hand, the BoingBoing comments are pretty funny! In the “oh no” sort of way.
(As a tangent: Bookshop also links to one of her own comments where she addresses succinctly what is one of the biggest misunderstandings in this perennial discussion: Many people seem to keep going all bzuh at the idea — central to fan fiction — of writing something and sharing it with a community, with no intention or desire to sell said piece of writing for money.)
Like Bookshop, I’m kind of bemused every time I have to have the conversation about why fan fiction is way okay. Aren’t we there yet? So maybe I can offer yet another way of making the argument: Any writing textbook lists those five elements of fiction. Why are the anti-fan fiction critics so hung up on the presumed necessity for original characters in the best-quality fiction, but see no necessity whatsoever for original settings?