Thursday, August 31, 2006

Recent reading

Fan Fiction and Fan Communities in the Age of the Internet, eds. Karen Hellekson & Kristina Busse: You’ve got to read Textual Poachers to do fandom studies. This collection is an instant essential on that level, for anyone interested in what it means to base a creation on a specific preexisting work, which is to say anyone interested in transformative use. Every essay taught me something. The main focus is on fandom as a community, which means that all its works are in some sense communally authored even though individual attribution also remains important. The other strand running through the pieces is the idea of using literary theory (or performance theory, see below) instead of the usual sociological approaches to studying fans -- treating fan creations as texts that can usefully be analyzed not just as expressions of resistance or cooptation, but as works of authorship and art.

Francesca Coppa’s history of fandom and later essay about the relevance of performance studies are alone worth the price of admission. Fan fiction as theatrical performance, explaining the genre’s focus on bodies and on repetition with a difference – this is an idea so brilliant that it seems obvious once she lays it out. As a bonus, she can really write. As copyright law has expanded to regulate more and more things that can be done with texts other than make identical copies of them, turning a "work" into an abstract thing that is never fully realized in any specific physical instance (see Julie Cohen's forthcoming Creativity and Culture in Copyright Theory on this), copyright looks more and more like a theory of performance, in the sense that each replication of a "work" is a link in a chain, each of which reflects on the others. Copyright scholarship could thus benefit from Coppa's approach. I've drawn on Coppa's work, and Sonia Katyal has a relevant piece that applies Austinian theories of performative language to copyright and slash fan fiction, but there's more to be done.

Aside from Coppa’s contribution, there are several other suggestions for a general term for forms of writing, like fan fiction, that claim interpretive power without authority and without closing off the possibilities for other contributions to the same set of texts. This includes Abigail Derecho’s fascinating “archontic,” which she offers in an essay that traces the history of rewriting as a women’s history of writing, sometimes literally in the margins. Many essays focus on fans’ use of Livejournal to post fiction and the interactions between readers and writers, texts and revisions, public and private, fact and fiction, and other traditionally opposed binary relations that Livejournal in particular and fan culture in general tend to undermine. The diversity of fandom will continue to increase, and maybe historical and critical perspectives can give some guidance on how fans can deal with the ever-increasing circles of fannish influence. One big binary that was largely unaddressed in the volume, and definitely deserves copyright scholars' attention, is the commercial/noncommercial divide, which has long been part of the fannish narrative of why it's okay to write fan fiction. Today, third parties like Livejournal, and occasional fans, are monetizing and commercializing "user-generated content" that consists of unauthorized derivative works. How should we deal with that? If the other binaries aren't sacred, why should this one be?

No comments: