History and fanfic

Over at Crooked Timber, a thread on a new novel which reuses a character from ‘The Great Gatsby’ got into a discussion of fanfic, a topic which I’ve been thinking about quite a bit recently. I’ve not only been reading some examples over the summer holiday, as a change from weighty French collections on patrimonial transfers, but even trying my hand at writing some. Having pretty much lost my desire for writing fiction since I started my research, I was surprised to find out how naturally fanfic writing came to me, and started thinking about the relationship between it and the kind of academic work I now do.

At one level, fanfic is one of the most basic and obvious responses to texts of all kinds. As “Dr Science” points out on the Crooked Timber thread @26):

many fanfic writers/readers recognize that what we do is very like pre-copyright storytelling: sitting around the fire, each telling part of one story or different (or contradictory, mine-is-better-than-yours) versions of the same story or set of characters.

It’s also something that children pick up instinctively from early on. I’ve had years now of my daughter wanting us to pretend to be My Little Ponies. And it matters even at that age that you get the characters right: you can’t have a Guava Lava who doesn’t like surfing, anymore than you can have a Spock who doesn’t bother with logical argument, or a Lancelot who is indifferent to Guinevere.

But to my mind, there are more specific points of contact between the Middle Ages and fandom. Partly it is a personal commitment to a world and a collection of texts that many others think silly or irrelevant or mediocre. Why are you studying those when you should be studying more important things, like Shakespeare or Virginia Woolf or the Industrial Revolution or the Nazis? I also think that the sprawling, interconnected, unclosed nature of medieval stories lend themselves to a certain kind of obsessive analysis of detail. If the technology had been available when I was a teenager, I would have been the nerd entering the details of every combat of Sir Agravain into the Malory Wiki. And from an entirely different angle, how much of medieval queer studies is really Chaucer slash?

But I’m also increasingly seeing parallels between fanfic and medieval history as well. I’ve written before about the issues I now find as a historian with reading historical fiction, but in the end that’s really my problem, not the writer’s. If a work of original fiction is good enough in its own right, it doesn’t ultimately matter if you invent a scene in which Elizabeth I and Mary, Queen of Scots meet. But when you’re writing history, you don’t own the characters, you’re just borrowing them, as it says at the top of lots of fanfics. It has to be as it would have been, or it’s no good.

The kind of cultural/gender/religious history I do involves trying to find and discuss the stories that the Middle Ages should have left us, but didn’t: how a royal divorce may have been arranged, what it was like to be a Carolingian noblewoman. For later periods, you can hope to find something new if you trawl for long enough through the archives: the stories you need, or even better ones, have already been written. For the early Middle Ages, however, the canon is a lot harder to expand. A lot of the best new research necessarily has to be created from scraps, or be a retelling of an older story from a different angle.

It’s disconcerting to realise how narrow the line is between my work as a respectable historian and activities that get sneered at for obsessiveness and prurience (because grown men and women shouldn’t be pouring over mediocre texts in that way, or wondering about those kind of things). But maybe I’m OK, because I’ve learnt to use footnotes, and to deploy a little academic jargon, and so I can get away with being a fangirl all my life. Or perhaps I should just carefully start to reposition myself as a researcher on canon law…

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6 thoughts on “History and fanfic

  1. “how much of medieval queer studies is really Chaucer slash?” I love this line!

    The whole post is very thought-provoking; to what extent is scholarly research ‘legitimate’ and ‘worthwhile’ just because it’s nicely referenced and uses a particular jargon? Hmm…

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    • There’s also a whole complex of distinctions that arbitarily divide ‘reputable’ academic research from ‘mickey mouse studies’, at least in mainstream thought. So if you do your research in ‘English literature’ it’s OK (because they do that at Oxbridge), whereas if you study the same things as part of ‘cultural studies’ or ‘media studies’ it’s not proper scholarship. Similarly, the UL Tower project is intended to help study of Victorian popular culture, which is acceptable, whereas studying modern popular culture (seminars on Buffy etc isn’t). And of course, it can’t be pornography if it’s in a classical language (or at least, if you need a glossary to understand it).

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  2. Fascinating how what is ‘acceptable’ academically is contextualised by – ? Our peers? Those who for some reason happen to be in fashion at the moment? Who decides? Glad you are climbing out of it!

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  3. *beams* Thank you for this post! As I learn more about fan theory and fan studies (and practice. Can’t forget fan practice), it becomes more and more obvious to me that many of the ways which we, fan readers and writers, own and use ‘canon’ are akin to the ways in which medieval authors worked with their common imaginative stock (Arthurian legend, classical legend, various mythologies). Fortunately, I know a few people who are working toward applying transformative works theory to medieval lit! It should be an exciting new development in the field.

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    • I think this needs a more considered reply from me at some point about some of the similarities and the differences between medieval reworkings and modern ones, especially concerning issues of authority and gender (fanfic as mostly female written etc). For the moment, however, I’m short of time and still worrying that my respectable historical work is actually just unacknowledged RPF. So I’ll leave you for now with the news that there is now Middle English rhyming Dr Who Slash.

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