The Philosophy of Fanfiction – The Genre of Cognitive Familiarity

Tell me the last literary conference you attended (or watched) where someone didn’t bring up the whole ‘What are we going to do about Fifty Shades selling so many copies?’ question? Published writers (and perhaps more scarily, readers) are reacting with a kind of abject, existential horror at the idea that something so degenerative, misogynistic and poor in quality became published and is selling more copies than them. Or they were for a bit but I think everyone has reached a point where they can forgive E.L. James and move on.

The allegations thrown against her have ranged from “She wrote it on her BlackBerry!” (le gasp) to “She’s never even been to Seattle!” (le even gasper).

But the most interesting issue people seem to have found with the series is this terror at the idea that it is basically a find-and-replace edit of a fanfiction story starring Edward and Bella from Twilight. Which is intriguing in itself because one of the things Twilight got very very right was sexual tension. That steam that was getting pent up over the course of the first three novels was only let out a little with the fourth novel in the official series. Fifty Shades is like breaking the pipe open.

But it also explains the flatness and lack of motivation of the characters. To put it simply, they aren’t James’s flat and uninspired characters. They’re Meyer’s. And as such, they tick all the right boxes for blank slates the readers can project themselves onto. Only, in the case of Edward, with the abstinence element gone, he is just pure power and menace and nothing else as Christian Grey. So, Edward Cullen was made even flatter.

But we sit and pick this apart and complain but the whole Fifty Shades phenomenon has been going on for a long time. No, not in fanfiction but in porn. This is essentially an SNM porn parody of Twilight. And in porn, the sex is paramount.

So then we can establish that Fifty Shades of Grey is fanfiction for erotica. So why read fanfiction?

We’ve been toying with the idea of Suvin’s Cognitive Estrangement for a while now. I think fanfiction may be about anti-estrangement. It is the genre of cognitive familiarity.

There is, surprisingly, no glut of academic papers relating to fanfiction but the one I did find corroborates this to an extent.

 Because the text appears to describe a fictional space, systematically tracing its salient features, it projects “a map” in the mind of the reader (see Ryan, Narrative 124-25). Fan readers can imagine this space’s layout with great accuracy. They know that relative to the door, the table is located on the left with the whiteboard in front of it and that the desk is in the far right corner. They also know that Cameron is standing with her back to a corridor and next to House’s office. What is more, they can fill out generic references (for example to a “small desk in the corner”) with specific images from the show (in this case, of a desk with a computer, positioned near a large window). While the text establishes a body on the scene, the reader’s projection helps to create an impression of complete access.

The Writing and Reading of Fan Fiction and Transformation Theory, Veerle Van Steenhuyse, Ghent University

Van Steenhuyse goes on to elaborate about the concept of immersion, transportation and flow. Flow is greatly increased in fanfiction because the cognitive buffer period of having to imagine the look and feel of the world is eliminated. But that brings on new challenges. The writer does not simply describe the world in fanfiction. The writer often describes the world through the eyes of someone the original author (or director) hasn’t given a perspective to. Van Steenhuyse has taken the character of Allison Cameron from the House MD TV show and shows how the same locale is not described as it is in traditional fiction but described through the eyes of someone different in fanfiction. And that is the extent of differentiation.

But, before we get ahead of ourselves, who or what is a fan?

someone who admires and supports a person, sport, sports team, etc.

is how the Cambridge Dictionary defines a fan. And that obviously entails a degree of loyalty and fidelity to the object being admired. But beyond that, it entails familiarity.

The concept of fanfiction ties in to a greater concept called fandom. 

The community that surrounds a tv show/movie/book etc. Fanfiction writers, artists, poets, and cosplayers are all members of that fandom. Fandoms often consist of message boards, livejournal communities, and people.

That’s Urban Dictionary.

The purpose of exploring these things is to move on from the question of ‘Why read these?’ (because familiarity entails faster flow and alternate approaches to very well known worlds) to ‘Who reads these?’

Well? The fandom does. And the nature of the fandom is such that they have watched every episode, read every page or watched every movie the original creator has put out. In addition to that, they have picked these characters, worlds and locales apart on their own and collaboratively. They know these characters as well as the author does, sometimes even better. So, they are very familiar. And familiarity is a necessity for enjoying fanfiction the way it was meant to be enjoyed.

Which brings us to the next question. Why write them?

To understand this, I asked the community of fanfiction writers on Wattpad and got very illuminating answers.

epichorn31 approaches it largely from the perspective of being a fan themselves.

When you get into a fandom enough, whether it’s a book, movie, TV show, band, etc., sometimes you come up with wild theories or ideas that just weren’t explored in the original work. Alternately, you just want to ship your favorite characters. It’s mostly the last one.

So it’s all about playing with the familiar and exploring new concepts with what has already been established. This extends even to the concept of shipping where romantic partnerships are created between characters who were not romantically paired in the original work.

For Getting_to_Know_Them, writing fanfiction is a way to practice  writing.

In all honesty it is a great way to get started with writing, not only are some of the harder parts such as Character Design, Plot navigation and world building already done for you allowing you to focus on the story but you also have a solid base to start exploring and experimenting and figuring out what works in terms of design. Due to writing within the constraints of another persons writing you will find yourself thinking about why they wrote the world to be in that particular way and you will also start to think of the problems that come from designing and creating worlds and characters.

jettmanas  shares a similar perspective.

This idea extends to characterization as well, as Getting_To_Know_Them puts it.

After the basics most people move on to OC’s where they are looking at the basics of character design and melding their own characters to another persons set of rules. Most initial characters from younger writers will end up being Mary / Gary Stu’s due to the lack of experience in character design that allows for the person to understand the strengths and flaws of characters and how they work into a narrative (Good Fandom to see bad Examples: Harry Potter – 90% of fics re-balance the story by having Harry become some sort of God-like character with 6 different “secret” magical abilities and being a shifter etc) Eventually a writer will learn to balance characters.

These writers explore a very intriguing aspect of fanfiction writing. What do you learn from writing fanfiction? Well, fanfiction must (to an extent) entail being part of the fandom which must entail familiarity. But writing good fanfiction must go a lot deeper than that. The writer must have a firm grasp on the way the world operates. The writer of good fanfiction is forced to pick apart the worldbuilding of the original work which is always good practice for any writer.

As far as characterization is concerned, the challenge becomes even harder because to achieve cognitive familiarity, the portrayal of the  character in the fanfiction has to have a high degree of fidelity to the character in the original work. And that isn’t easy writing to accomplish, especially if the work in question involves complex characters with difficult motivations (Harry Potter works as a fair example.

The challenge ramps up when the characters are real people. Which is why I have this longstanding theory about why 1D fanfics are better than Justin Beiber ones and outnumber the latter vastly. It’s because 1D seem to be more interesting characters, personally. This even extends to the Phan fandom. Real human beings have to be picked apart for flaws, traits and insecurities. What better way to learn how to invent fake people?

A third reason is a lot more commercial.

As DysgraphicBen  puts it:

The first (goal of fanfiction) would be to entertain fellow fans, especially when something new is either so far off or no longer possible.

According to jettmanas :

Another advantage is people are familiar with the brand, and are typically more likely to read it than something random.

In Wattpad, a fanfiction story collects reads, votes and comments a lot faster than stories in the other genres precisely because of the fandom. Which acts as a motivation for others in the fandom to write. And those will also be read, motivating others to write and so on.

Which brings us back to the beginning. Why are we horrified by this phenomenon? What does it mean?

China Mieville (yes, him again) in his talk about The Future of the Novel at the EWWC, discusses the idea of the liberation of the narrative. The text will no longer be closed but will open with everyone given the ability to mashup, remix, muck around with and enjoy a text in a vastly different way from what is already happening. And I was all like, dude, that’s already happened.

Fanfiction represents something beautiful. It shows that the text has already been liberated. It does not deny the originator any credit (on the contrary, the originator is often worshipped) but adds to an existing canon with ideas ranging from the crowd-pleasing to the outre and the bizarre. And it ushers in a cadre of new writers who know how worldbuilding works, how good characterization is to be done and how to constuct a plot.

Fanfiction is like a self-taught Creative Writing course when done well. It deserves not scorn but close, careful study and a lot of respect.

My thanks to @epichorn31  @DysgraphicBen  @jettmanas and @Getting_to_Know_Them for their well thought out, detailed responses to my queries. 

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