Christian A. Young's Dimlight Archive

Fandom, death of the author, and learning to love the bomb

I'm still thinking about fandom, and the way my anxiety about the (increasingly fictional) fan/pro divide sneaks up on me.

Some of my best, most enduring friendships started with fanfiction. Mostly other fanwriters -- like any breed of bird, we flock -- but also some of the people who enjoyed reading the stuff I posted. Fanwriting is social and performative all at once, like DIY punk or Raqs Baladi, and a fair few of us also do pro work as well.

I mean, cue complete lack of surprise. We've officially entered the age of the fan-who-is-creator at more or less every level, with high-interaction environments like Twitter and Tumblr. The membrane is porous, now, and we fan in public where the creators can see.

I think this is mostly good, though I confess to a lot of anger when I see fans (a group with whom I identify) take out their anger on creators (with whom I also identify) in ways that drive them back out of these fora. It's a multi-layered feeling of shame by association, desire to defend, and frustration at the loss.

"This is why we can't have nice things" colliding with "They're not with me, I swear," basically.

And I spend a lot of time looking at people who are very much in that pro realm framework, and think concretely about how very strange their lives are, going from eating breakfast with the family to sitting in an auditorium with a thousand screaming people who've got these parasocial bonds with a character or a public image or a book or whatever and have expectations based on that, and how deep that divide must feel in that moment.

In my head this thing is huge and tough to navigate. As a human, I want a lot of the things that fans want: to be chosen, to be seen, to be affirmed by someone close to the thing I love, to say thank you to a stranger. As a creator, I feel weird and bad about some of that, because I know that writing a story or playing a role doesn't confer superhuman graciousness, psychic ability, and resources or desire to fulfill everyone's emotional fantasy, or just to withstand the barrage.

Let's pause here to reflect that sometimes that barrage looks like people randomly giving celebrities dead sharks.

(Side note: I am not a celebrity and I do not need any dead sharks. I already have one, preserved in a jar, on my bathroom counter. That is enough dead sharks for anybody who is not a marine biologist. Send me denture bracelets instead.)

Potential for creepiness aside, though, I'm almost painfully interested in the effect this interaction has on the real production of things. Characters whose tenure is meant to be short -- think Ianto Jones or Castiel -- become fan favorites and regulars. Subtext gets acknowledged by showrunners and actors at conventions. Shows like Castle and Supernatural play with the fan/pro relationship in within the text. Richard Castle and Kate Beckett both cosplay, for example, while Sam and Dean occasionally have to deal with the implications of their story having been published by a prophet as a series of novels with its own fandom.

Outside the text, we get videos of Misha Collins taking Diestel brand products to mailbox stores to "ship it," Gail Simone and Matt Fraction being incredibly conversational with readers on social media about their characters, Gareth David-Lloyd and John Barrowman kissing on convention stages, and...hell, Orlando Jones. That man is his own damn category.

Where I'm going with this is that authorial intent and fan desire collide so much more audibly than I remember growing up, and the implications of that. I think about, as a writer, how much I hide my work when I'm not ready to talk about it, because for me there is a fragile stage. I think about reading episode codas for shows I like in fandoms in which I might want to commit some fic, and stopping because I don't want my process contaminated.

There is a concept called "death of the author," which basically comes down to the idea that once a creator puts a thing into the hands of the public, authorial intent ceases to be relevant. I have mixed feelings about this, mostly because my philosophy about creative work is that it exists in a space between the work and the observer. It's the creator's job to put the data in the work. If somebody gets the work and doesn't get the data, something has gone wrong.

(Side note: I recall, but cannot find, an interview with Jon Stewart about that idea that communicating an idea successfully is the responsibility of the author, from around the time he and Colbert did that big rally. Anyone remember it?)

The nice thing about death of the author is that we can, in our fan roles, engage a text however we want to. Happy (or unhappy) accidents in the text are ours to comment on and play with. I think, though, it's also a tricky model to believe in now that the channels are this open. What we really get is the author creating a text, releasing the text, and then existing in an environment where text feedback is present, and sometimes very explicitly so, and people either fervently desire more info about intent or want to silence the author entirely.

What that means in my preferred philosophy of the work existing between the text and the audience, then is that it's doing that thing, but in a triangle with the author, and the position of the work is continually shifting closer and further away from the author, the text, and the audience.

In my head I love this, both as creator and fan. In reality, I'm completely intimidated by it, just like I'm intimidated by my own weird attachments to works and creators. These are things we love -- the things we make, the things we read and watch and identify with -- and it's hard not to be afraid of getting hurt.

It's like falling in love. You take the risk, or you hide it away.

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  1. I’ve tended to have more sympathy with the creators: they’re the ones who have done the structural work. We all love So-and-so, but because of arcs and personality and foreshadowing and so on, he’s doomed (see, for example, the Dan Stevens character in Downton Abbey, or Thomas Lynley in Elizabeth George’s mysteries). However, it’s cool to see a character who has room to change then do so because of audience response (Eric Northman in True Blood), or a story line shift another way because of life events (pregnant Gillian Anderson means new directions for Scully and Mulder on The X-Files), and hurrah to the writers who can work it and remain true to the overall story.

    And Orlando Jones–lord yes. If anyone is looking for a present for me, I’d like a “Free Frank Irving” T-shirt, please.

  2. Oooh boy. You are going to have SUCH an interesting time at your first SPN convention. I don’t mean that in a negative way, necessarily, it’s just a fascinating experience. I kind of loved it and kind of felt sheepish the whole weekend at the same time. Like I told a friend “It feels a bit like paying for a whore.” It’s like, I have a need to meet these guys. The only way I can meet them is to pay obscene amounts of money. The only reason they’re spending this time with me is because I’m spending the money. Doesn’t mean they’re not getting any enjoyment out of it, but really, it’s a business transaction. I still have mixed feelings about it, even though I kind of want to go to another one? Life is confusing for a fangirl…

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