Storming the Ivory Tower: Parafanfiction and Oppositional Fandom

This is a thought-provoking post.  A few definitions and examples, emphasis mine:

Parafiction purports to be real and accomplishes certain things by hoaxing the audience but it also depends upon the revelation of its fakeness….Carrie Lambert-Beatty, who coined the phrase, cites people like the Yes Men or Stephen Colbert as a good example of this. 

Parafanfiction… claims to be fanfiction of, or some other record of, an external media object that does not actually exist. The most notable examples of this are the Homestuck Anime and Squiddles, both of which are spinoffs of the actual Homestuck hypercomic. The idea with those projects is to fabricate an entire alternate reality where Homestuck is an anime and the in-comic show Squiddles actually exists. 

Ah, Simon Snow fanfic is parafanfiction!  How delightful that there is a name for that. 🙂

If I understand correctly, I think Sherlockians playing The Game can also be viewed as creating parafanfiction.  The Game treats ACD’s stories as a factual biography (though potentially with errors or deliberate obfuscations by Watson), and Holmes and the other characters as historical figures.  Players of the game then fill in the gaps and explain seeming inconsistencies in the text.  But the biography and historical figures do not actually exist as such (though there is a collection of fictional tales and characters that closely resemble them).  So creating explanations via The Game is a form of writing fanfiction for a fake object.

The author, Sam Keeper, later mentions the Sherlock fandom specifically:

Now, I’m really interested these days in the way that transformative works serve to undermine the binary division between creator/consumer and to screw up the idea that successful creative workers are successful primarily due to skill alone, as opposed to luck, available resources, social circles, more luck, &c. &c.. The divisions are particularly egregiously visible with a show and fandom like that of Sherlock, which is objectively speaking big-budget fanfiction. That is literally all it is. And frankly, it has way more issues with its narrative than quite a few fanfics I could mention. And yet the fans of the show, particularly fans that ship John Watson and Sherlock, are consistently pathologized by show runners and sensationalist corporate media hacks alike. While their actions are objectively 100% the same god damn thing, one class of creator is canonized and consecrated, while another is ostracised and vilified.

I don’t actually feel vilified by the showrunners, generally (I think Moffat and Gatiss seem to have an awareness that they’re writing fic, and a great deal of affection for their fandom), but certainly the media often mocks fanfic while revering Sherlock.  (And I fully agree that the show has more narrative issues than some of the fanfic!)  Anyway, I’m not quibbling with the general point about attitudes toward fandom vs. “original” works/works distributed via mainstream publishing channels – those the essayist describes as “consecrated.”

The author then moves on to describe something he dubs Oppositional Fandom:

Introduce into this media environment a host of objects that seem to be simple archival records of an existing show. They appear visually to be of the quality one would expect from what they claim to be… in fact, so convincing are they that you begin to believe that they’re the real thing.

When you discover that the whole thing is a hoax–a parafanfiction–what are you forced to conclude?

Well, I think the obvious conclusion is that consecrated art is indistinguishable from unconsecrated work without outside intervention. Our perceptions of what is legitimate are subject to manipulation. This undermines the mechanisms of consecration by exposing their arbitrary nature.

This is a fascinating point, which he expands on – I encourage you to read the whole thing.

I thought at first that Sam Keeper was making a point along the following lines – that some fanfic is incredibly high quality, but because we clearly label these works as fanfic, many people continue to be dismissive.  By instead maintaining a temporary fiction that a fanfic is actually an installment in the existing canon, and then revealing the hoax, one could help force that wall down.  (Also applicable to other fanworks.)  A convincing hoax of this nature would require the fanwork in question to closely emulate the original in style/tone/narrative/etc. But it’s an interesting thought.

He seems to additionally be making a point not be about this kind of parafictional hoax, but about parafanfiction and  [i]ts weirdness, its nested nature, the way it dissolves the boundaries of what is a “real” media product, the potential for layer upon layer of head games…“  It seems that he views parafanfiction as another strategy for causing people to question the intellectual monopoly of "canon” creators.  I suspect parafanfiction mostly produces more of a “whoa – mindfuck!” moment than necessarily breaking any mental barriers between fanworks and consecrated works.  But this is a fascinating set of ideas (and new vocab) to ponder further.

(H/T fanhackers, whose quote lured me in, but whose link was slightly borked)

Link fixed, thanks!