You can find most things on the internet if you think to look for them. Tolkien never wrote about the delicacy and tact involved in the relationships between Frodo Baggins, Sam Gamgee and Sam’s fiancée Rosie – yet someone else has written a novel that uses them to talk about the ethics of polyamory. Rather than parody the quasi-fascistic cheesecakery of 300, Zack Snyder’s film about the battle of Thermopylae, someone recut its trailer as a video (or “vid”) for the gay disco classic “It’s Raining Men”. There is a thesis to be written about the anti-feminism implicit in most portrayals of women in Disney cartoon adaptations of fairy stories – but artists have made the point more succinctly in detailed drawings that reimagine the Little Mermaid as a sharp-toothed siren or a student on spring break. Such things are sometimes done in love, sometimes in anger, more often in a bittersweet mixture of both, but done they are, by amateurs who nonetheless display great artistry.
Some fan fiction and fan art, produced in flagrant though tolerated breach of copyright, is made by writers and artists in the process of finding their own voices. Most, though, comes from people with no further creative ambitions, who post the results online – and in an earlier era handed them out at fan meetings in stapled pamphlets – to entertain their friends and anyone else who might stumble across them. There is a purity to this, analogous to what the social researcher Richard Titmuss calls the gift relationship, which arguably balances out the harm done to the moral right of the creator. Indeed, Joss Whedon, among others, makes it clear that the fan fiction devoted to his work delights him; there is also a certain decorum in most fan culture which ensures that few go poaching on the secondary worlds of writers such as Anne Rice or Robin Hobb, who have let it be known that they mind.
One of the many things made possible by digital technologies is that films and television shows can be enjoyed repeatedly and at any time, as books have been for centuries, and music since Edison recited “Mary Had a Little Lamb” and etched the sounds onto a wax cylinder. This alone (to say nothing of the alternate takes, deleted scenes and director’s commentaries routinely included on DVDs) means a generation of fans have a level of acquaintance with films and TV shows that was once possible only for dedicated scholars. It makes for fan fiction full of unexpected insights and precise, finely observed pastiche. It also means that fans can feel much more possessive of the work, often criticising authors for the development and fate of their characters. That may not be entirely new – see a century and a half of readers’ reactions to Becky Sharpe’s alleged murder of Jos Sedley in Thackeray’s Vanity Fair – but the pace audiences demand has certainly increased. “Write Like the Wind (George R. R. Martin)” is a witty version of a command not always expressed so gently. Where this feeling of ownership overlaps with the call-out culture of social media, it also produces extremely detailed political critiques of work that cannot always bear quite that much significance.
Theoreticians of popular culture used to assume that it was consumed uncritically, as mere product, a drug for a populace too tired and alienated to spend their leisure time on Proust and Mozart. Adorno vastly underestimated Duke Ellington, for instance, believing that jazz had to be banal because of its origins and means of production. What he failed to recognise is that mass-produced pop culture, with the fast-forward button pressed down, developed attributes that are visible in most cultural production if we care to see it. Cultural objects are thick texts, palimpsests in which the author’s original intentions are overlaid not only with their second thoughts, but with our reading and rereading. Works of art are provisional (artists revise) and collective (produced in the context of a genre, interpreted by performers or even made by a group); and art always involves compromises, with the limits of the artist’s talent if not with the demands of the patron or market. Adorno would have pointed to these aspects of pop culture as evidence of its inferior worth – yet they are probably true of all art, or certainly all Western art.
As William Gibson was one of the first to understand, “the street finds its own uses for things”. Cheap tape-cassette recording created a vehicle for political protest in eastern Europe; in the West, it enabled a generation to serenade their beloveds with mixtapes. Of course, the music industry detested this and spent vast sums on campaigns claiming that home taping was killing music, but the music survived and flourished, partly because the act of compiling a mixtape offered a far more acute feeling of possession and even authorship than just listening or dancing ever could.
The capacity to inhabit someone else’s work of art, and transfer its emotional charge to your own efforts, is particularly, though not only, a feature of postmodern culture. To do so consciously and unabashedly is to reject the Romantic sacralisation of originality; yet it is also a rejection of the Classical idea that there were only some texts – the Bible, Greek myth – that it was decorous to appropriate. In his book The Figure of Echo, John Hollander argues that literary borrowing and allusion is a form of metonymy, whereby writers conjure up the whole cultural weight of the texts they evoke; Thomas Pynchon, especially in Gravity’s Rainbow, extends the use of this sort of metonymy to everything from comic books to advertising slogans, creating a text some readers find so thick as to be almost impenetrable. Fan fiction is born of the same omnivorous impulse, as is the rise of sampling in pop music, where allusion, quotation and outright rip-off can become part of a track’s texture, with both obvious and more subliminal effects.
Much genre writing uses other texts in a critical way. Michael Lehmann’s 1988 teen comedy Heathers derives much of its bite from irritation at the cosy teen dramas of John Hughes, but a Hollywood movie can only go so far. Fan fiction in SF, fantasy and horror routinely subverts other works. The scholar Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick argued long ago that the presence of eroticised male friendship in mass media is a way to fend off the possibility of representing homosexual attraction. The fans had got there several years before her: one significant subgenre of fan fiction is “slash”, which queers the text by putting sexual possibility back into same-sex pairings; it takes its name not from violence but from punctuation, as in Kirk/Spock or Buffy/Willow. Nor is slash limited to fiction: many vids recut lingering glances to soundtracks that make them seem more than they were intended to be.
A generation of young writer-directors, from Tarantino to Kevin Smith, emerged from jobs as clerks in video stores; television in the US and UK is full of creators – Whedon, Andrew Davies, Jane Espenson – who started off as fans. And of course, swathes of current mainstream film, especially work that inhabits the DC and Marvel Comics universe, are essentially fan writing. One of the things that make contemporary genre film possible is that, first through magazines such as Famous Monsters of Filmland and then through online forums, the skills involved in monster make-up and computerised simulation of vast battles became widely available to fans.
Some of the greatest art has derived from such obsessions – the young Johann Sebastian Bach hiked across Germany to hear Buxtehude play the organ and we know how much he admired his contemporary Vivaldi from the way his concerto for four harpsichords arranges one of Vivaldi’s for four violins. Much of rock and pop evolved out of the teenage fixations of its future stars, who taught themselves to mimic the fingering of great bluesmen of the ’30s or the three chords of punk.
Fans put in the hours, and sometimes that enables them to surpass their heroes in terms of technical skill, but their real, crucial advantage over the average amateur and even the average pro is their commitment and the quality of their attention. It’s arguable, in fact, that brilliance and fandom require many of the same ingredients. There is a moment in Ed Wood in which the director, frustrated on the set of his latest film, takes refuge in a bar and runs into his idol, Orson Welles, who consoles him with tales of his own setbacks on Citizen Kane. Wood is renowned as one of the worst directors in history, but the scene conveys the deep link between art and obsession. Unfortunately for Wood, unswerving devotion to your art is no guarantee of greatness, but it is certainly possible that greatness cannot be reached without it. §
Click here for Roz Kaveney's short introduction to the best fan fiction online.