Our guest blogger this week is: Susanna Goodin, Ph.D. Associate Professor of Philosophy Adjunct Professor of Gender and Women’s Studies University of Wyoming ~~~ No other type of writing does what fan fiction does: It allows the writer to play. Think about it. How do most of us get into fan fiction? A story captures our imagination. It doesn’t matter if the source is great literature, popular fiction, film, play, or poem. We become captivated with a setting or with characters; the original work creates a mental space within our minds that we are loathe to leave, and so we continue to think about the original work long after we have closed the book or left the theater. We can certainly enjoy or study the work without writing fan fiction. We can go out for coffee and talk about the film. We can gather in someone’s home and talk about a novel we have all read. We can go on-line and join a forum and discuss details ad naseum. If we are of a scholarly inclination, we can write a critical essay discussing themes and implications. But in all these cases we are sticking to the story itself. There remains the option of going beyond the story itself and beginning to play with it. We use the thoughts we are having about the original to write a story of our own, playing with it by continuing the tale, revising it, or using it as a jumping off point to go wherever our mind’s fancy takes us. It isn’t that I can’t create my own worlds; it’s just that, sometimes, I have something different in mind. I really like some of the worlds out there that have already been created and I want to spend time in them, see more about what is going on, discuss it with others, and get their take on it. I want to play with the world and play within the world that has captivated me. Fan fiction often consists of what are known as fixes, what-ifs, or gap fillers. A common move is to take characters from one story and place them within another, then explore what might happen. Come play the “what-if” game with me and imagine for the moment that Captain Vere from Melville’s Billy Budd were to find himself in the kitchen with the two women from Susan Glaspell’s “A Jury of Her Peers.” Should a person write this story, they would be writing fan fiction, drawing upon a common original source and using it to explore new possibilities. The interest is not in creating new characters or a new setting, but using, playing with, established characters to explore new possibilities. Would Captain Vere adhere so rigidly to justice if faced with the same evidence as the women in that cold, desolate kitchen as he did on a ship during wartime? Perhaps the majority of the readers of this blog do not know Glaspell’s “A Jury of Her Peers” (or the play version of the same story called Trifles). Then the power of imagining Captain Vere in the kitchen is lost. And if I have to spend my time writing a story that sets up a similar situation to that found in Glaspell’s work, then the focus of imagining Vere in that so very bleak kitchen is lost. But what if Frodo had sent Merry and Pippin back to Hobbiton rather than allowed them to accompany him on the Quest? What if Snape went to IKEA? The point here is that, whether we are dealing with literature and asking serious questions about justice or writing crack!fic about popular children’s stories, it doesn’t matter. What we are doing involves playing with a shared, known original text, and as such it all qualifies as fan fiction. The type of writing that shows up in fan fiction couldn’t happen in any other setting because the work deals with the possibility of capturing a moment and playing with it, where the focus is on the playing (twisting, revising, exploring) rather than on the establishing, since the work of establishing the moment was done in the original work. Fan fiction can also provide a study into an otherwise minor moment in the original work, revisit the moment from a different perspective, or use the moment to tell another story entirely. Fan fiction can draw upon an established story with known characters to create a mood, moment, or story that is not possible unless there is shared knowledge of the original. It only works if the audience knows the reference, for if the reference has to be created anew each time, as an original work, the focus of the piece about the mood or the moment would be altered. For example, consider the play Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead by Tom Stoppard. This play is fan fiction–professional fan fiction written at the highest level, but fan fiction nonetheless. (One might even argue that it counts as slash, since the introduction of the Alfred character creates a homoerotic subtext that was not there in Hamlet.) The success of the play depends entirely upon a shared knowledge of the source material. Granted, Stoppard has written a play that can be enjoyed by those who know nothing of Hamlet, but to grasp the full import of Stoppard’s work, knowledge of Hamlet is essential. In other words, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead depends upon there being a Hamlet fandom. What Stoppard does in his play is play with Shakespeare’s play. I would like to be able to refer to fan fiction writing as playing-writing, but I suspect the playwrights would object. My claim is that fan fiction is playing and that in order for that playing to occur and to be the focus of the writing, it needs a common source upon which to draw. This means that there needs to be a fandom—others out there to read and write within the same story world that I am reading and writing in. I’ll end with a final comment that is beyond the scope of this post but merits further exploration. There is a psychological component to the notion of play. One doesn’t play unless one is comfortable in the environment. There needs to be a sense of freedom and acceptance. And since playing often is improved by the presence of playmates, the play is more fun in a community of like-minded individuals. Women tend to be far more communal than men—they are less competitive and judgmental. I mention this as a partial possible explanation for why the majority of fan fiction writers are women.
[META] Fan fiction as play