Monday, 9 August 2010

The Democratic Genre: Fan Fiction in a Literary Context

I was aware of fanfic already; had read a bit from some of my favourite universes (from Harry Potter to Lord of the Rings) because I was curious why X said that to Y, what Y really thought of Z, and how the drama of X and Z finally getting it together would play out – but hadn’t thought about how or why fanfic writers went about doing what they did. I’d even written some, without really knowing my reasons for doing so. Pugh’s incredibly well-researched investigation into the genre answered those questions, and raised many more. I must admit that I had always dismissed fanfic (and all its sub-genres) as a silly little aside that ‘real’ writers did for fun; or something that people not good enough to be ‘real’ writers did because they loved the characters that they’d come to know so well from books, films and TV.

Not having explored other fandoms online, I was amazed at how many there were, and the diversity of that range. The Bill, Men Behaving Badly, Hornblower, Blakes Seven… I can understand why people would want more from those universes, but for the life of me I cannot understand why anyone would want to read any more Jane Austen that they had to at school! Since reading The Democratic Genre, I’ve gone on to read and enjoy many excellent stories mentioned or quoted in Pugh’s investigation, even from The Bill which I have never really watched.

My opinion of the genre has changed, and I can totally see the literary tradition that helped to shape modern fanfic. Shakespeare took well known stories, and wrote his own versions of them; correcting what he didn’t like and making the characters interact in the ways he wanted to see them doing (Macbeth killing Duncan in Macbeth’s own castle, for instance). Pugh’s own novel Kirstie’s Witnesses is basically fanfic, from the foreword:
“The real Kirstie’s story is contained in several documents, notably the minutes of the Parochial Board, an application form, and evidence given at a trial and an inquiry. These items are all in the Shetland Archive.” She took these facts, and weaved a life out of them; isn’t that what fanfic writers do? The only difference I can see between this and typical fanfic is that the character was a real person, the methods used to write the novel remain true to fanfic's narrative forms. The same can be said for Tom Stoppard’s amazing play Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead; it could have been written as a book or story, but Stoppard, in keeping with the source material (Shakespeare’s Hamlet) he made it a play. Fanfic writers use the source material to generate new stories for their characters, in the style of the original. Pugh gives an example of a Bill fic that is written as a screenplay, using “the narrative techniques of [the] source material.”

I’ve read slash stories for various reasons: titillation; the oddness of seeing two people together who would never be like that in real life (the real life of the universe in which they live, that is); the enjoyment of queer writing; the exploration of sexuality. Pugh herself once said “anyone, up to and including a serial killer’s head, is legitimate territory for a writer to explore”. I embrace that sentiment, as have many other writers. For slash writers, changing the sexuality, or at least questioning or challenging it, is that same legitimately explorable territory. I still find it hard to understand why there are so few male slash writers. The answer to the question of why there are so many female writers and readers of slash was always obvious to me, and Pugh answers it so nicely “two good-looking men getting it on appeals to some women just as the reverse scenario does to some men.” She continues "some slash writers who were themselves gay may have wanted to explore this territory partly for ideological reasons, but many fanfic writers, both gay and straight, just followed their insatiable curiosity about alternative scenarios.” They are my reasons for reading and writing slash.

Pugh's investigation has deepened my interest in the genre by showing how fanfic can be a literary genre (albeit a rather odd one), as surely as the writing of the beat generation, pulp fiction or steampunk are. Yet fanfic can also be so much more. Some of the writers Pugh has interviewed in the book have explored their chosen characters by plunging them into different universes: a Blakes Seven/Cabaret crossover; Green Eggs and Hamlet (a particular favourite of mine); the first person tale of a mutoid from the B7 universe slowly reverting to humanity. When reading a book, my partner will often stop and stare at the wall or sky for minutes on end; he recently told me that what he’s doing is continuing the stories and conversations, in his head – what if X took Y to one side before the start of chapter six and explained about Z’s behaviour? Pure fanfic. I’ve told him to start writing them down! Another thing I found refreshingly positive, is Pugh’s assertion that just because someone is not paid for their writing, it doesn’t mean that it’s not good writing. I’m paid for hardly any of my writing! My own experiments in fanfic (mostly slash, I’ll admit) have been shorter fics and drabbles (100 words), character studies, or little in-between scenes to get to know a quirk I’ve read or imagined – but now I want to write more, something as clever and furiously inventive as the stuff Pugh introduces in her book.

Buy the book from Seren Books
or Amazon

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