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Fanfic: Electrifying the Oral Tradition

This piece was originally a part of the essay now entitled ‘Deconstructing Miss Granger’. It has, however, been spun off, revised, refocused, and much expanded. It has also wandered off on a tangent which wasn’t present in its original iteration.

In any event, very little of it still pertains to the character of Hermione Granger.

Although that does, nevertheless serve as a reasonable jumping-off point. The character of Hermione Granger is not even remotely close to being “mysterious”. Which, ironically, probably makes it all the more difficult for many fanwriters to get a real handle on her. Many of the fans don’t seem to have registered this.

Or, if they have, they evidently have few objections to the preponderance of seriously off-kilter “Hermiones” (or ’Miones or ’Myas) which proliferate throughout fanfic. I suspect that a part of this is because we mostly recognize that Rowling’s version is not a completely realized character to begin with, and that any 3rd-party interpretation is largely the creation of said 3rd-party.

This is one of the major differences between “characters” and character “types”. The denizens of genre fiction are almost overwhelmingly character “types”. This includes the citizens of the Potterverse.

Which right there is a good explanation for why Hermione Jean is so often so recognizably Hermione Sue. As one of the only really two half-way consistently developed female characters in the series (the other is Luna Lovegood, although there isn’t much inconsistency shown by the female staff of Hogwarts either), and an alleged authorial self-insertion, Hermione Granger constitutes a positive invitation for the reader to project herself, or an idealized iteration of that self, into the position of the character.

Another thing; and a far more overriding factor that I think accounts for this pervasive “Sueishness” in these presentations is the flattening effect of the inevitable overlay of “popular culture’s” social dynamics upon almost all imaginative process; thereby often muddling the “vision” before it even reaches the forefront of the author’s brain.

Since all “storytelling” is a part of popular culture this risk appears to be all but unavoidable, and the risk is not confined to fanfiction. Professional writers are subject to it as well. Particularly off in the genre fiction ghetto, which tends to get little respect. I suspect that this is part of the reason.

The trick, for the aspiring author — rather than merely a storyteller — is to see through the cultural overlay and make the necessary adjustments necessary for creating a coherent and individualized character, rather than merely adopting a basic “type” wholesale, or taking an existing one and crudely standing it on its head. This is harder than it looks. After all, a perfectly satisfactory “story” can be drafted and told which is populated entirely with repertory “stock” characters with no individualization whatsoever. Most folktales in fact are.

Works of literature, however, are not.

Essentially what the aspiring author is fighting against are the demands of the Oral Tradition. And if one ends up feeling very much like a salmon fighting its way upstream, one is probably on the right track.

The effect of the Oral Tradition upon any story line or character is to distill it down into the lowest common denominator. To generalize rather than to individualize, to translate the particular into the “universal”, ultimately grinding everything down and rendering it back into the archetype — which is too indigestable to reduce any further. Heroines, even female heroes, dwindle into generic “princesses”, heroes into the third sons of either kings or peasants with nothing really left to determine the difference. Antagonistic females morph into stepmothers or witches, and antagonistic males into robber barons, wicked kings, or evil sorcerers. Characters, in short, who are not characters, and who consequently need no further explanation, types which bring into the story no personal baggage of their own that will distract the listener from the story arc.

Contrary to general expectation, and most appearances; not all fanfiction is pure storytelling. No more than all professional publishing is. This has always been the case, and probably always will be the case.

For that matter, in the “official received version” fanfiction has never been openly acknowledged as merely “storytelling” since it just sounds so much more high status to attempt to define it as being somehow “literary”. (“What do you do as a hobby?” “Oh, I write.” sounds far more intellectual than; “I make up stories.”)

The fanfic community traditionally would have almost preferred to be regarded as an informal thieves’ guild, marauders of published authors’ intellectual property than as a clot of ephemeral storytellers. To be perceived as a commercial threat at least gave them and their authorial aspirations some degree of credibility. In the era of the worldwide web, this is no longer the case. Nor would it be a viable option. The online community makes what amounts to self-publication far too easy, and has removed much of the commercial component from the equation.

There will always be a segment of the fanfic community who really want to be authors. For these practitioners it’s not enough just to get the story told and out into circulation. They really want to develop some bonafide writing skill and technique. To not just tell a story but to tell it with style, embellished with all the bells and whistles and quirky “literary” tricks that slow down the reader’s headlong rush to the conclusion and give him something to chew on along the way.

The Oral Tradition, however, has no use or patience with this kind of solitary wankage. Nor for stories which can only really be “appreciated” by a self-selecting elite.

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Back in, I think the ’70s, there was a fairly popular book which came out and attracted a pretty wide readership. There was even a movie, although I vaguely think it might have been made for T.V., rather than for theatrical release. Like the Harry Potter series, this was one of those really very good, predominantly fantasy stories which periodically somehow manage to show up above the general horizon and draw a good deal of attention from people who do not normally read fantasy and are astonished to discover how much they liked it.

The book was ‘Watership Down’. The story, in the remote case that you may not be familiar with it, is a classic Heroic Quest-style of epic tale enacted by a group of rabbits; survivors of a warren which was destroyed by suburban development. In the course of their quest, the group travel across the downs seeking for a place to establish a new warren. When, after several adventures, they find a suitable place, it gradually dawns upon them that since the group is entirely made up of bucks the new warren will not come into being unless they are able to find some does and bring them to their sanctuary. The second half of the book relates the adventures entailed in doing exactly that. The fact that this part of the tale has been irreverently dubbed The Rape of the Sabine Bunnies is clearly intended to be affectionate in its mockery.

Threaded throughout the story are a selection of “hero tales” represented as the exploits of the rabbits’ folk hero, Eleheragh (it has been some decades since I read it, so the spelling here is probably wildly off). These tales, falling somewhere between myth and creed, sustain and inspire the little band, and suggest various practical solutions to the problems which they meet in their ordeal.

At the end of the book, at the end of his life, the leader of the group overhears some of his own exploits in the course of the founding of the (now thriving) warren related by a group of young rabbits, with the deeds therein all attributed to Eleheragh.

This is the Oral Tradition in action. In a culture of creatures who can conceive of no more than one culture hero, all great deeds are, by extension, the deeds of the hero that everybody knows. And this hero is inevitably reduced to an archetype, not a truly individualized “character”. He is “Everyrabbit”, but no single rabbit individually.

Among more sophisticated creatures, such as humans, there is room in the collective imagination for a dozen or more archetypes. But the tendency is still for those details which individualize true characters to be lost over multiple tellings. Much as the “good” is regarded as the enemy of the “best”, the principle of the “archetype” is the enemy of the “character”.

Fanficton has been with us for quite some time. Many of the people currently involved in it now trace it back as far as the original Star Trek in the late 1960s, but it is much older than that. If you tag it onto the tradition of literary pastiche it can be effortlessly traced well into the end of the 19th century and centuries farther back yet if you really try. The most familiar examples which come immediately to mind are the countless “further adventures” of Sherlock Holmes for which A. Conan Doyle can take no direct responsibility, or any of the 200+ apocryphal Oz books that were never published by Reilly & Lee. And, for the record, yes Virginia, there was Tolkein fanfic back in the late ‘60s as well. Although I do not know whether the phenomenon lasted until they made a movie of the work, thereby setting off a whole new generation of same.

For that matter, what else are the traditional Robin Hood tales but a fanfic legacy whose authors’ identities have disappeared over time? Or, for that matter, many of the tales of King Arthur’s Knights.

But the price of fanfic’s being regarded as an unauthorized form of literary pastiche was for it to be branded a bastardized branch of Literature, usually regarded as very poorly executed, but, nevertheless, subject to all the rules and regulations to which Literature and the aspiring creators of Literature are subject. And for so long as fanfic was confined to text on paper, this was probably the only really appropriate context in which to relate to it.

In an era when publishing a fanfic usually meant reproducing it in ditto, or mimeograph at best, and to sell it to defray one's production costs was clearly treading upon the toes of the copyright holder it is hard to regard the matter as anything other than a lose/lose proposition.

But people still did it.

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However, the all but complete migration of fanfic to electronic media over the past two decades or so (yes, the World Wide Web celebrates its 20th anniversary in this year of 2013) has shifted this paradigm. In fact, it has bundled it into a van and moved it all the way into terra incognita. We are not now where we once were. And the bulk of fanfiction is manifestly no longer assumed to be even titularly “literary”.

Since fanfic is still typically expressed in text it is difficult to get beyond the impression that we are still dealing with the dynamics of print media. But we really are not. The majority of fanfic is never printed. What is more, it is never really intended to be printed. Its reason to exist is not as a “larval” stage of scaling some great height leading to the pinnacle of professional publication and public distribution. Even the crudest of such work is already publicly distributed. It has already been sent out into the world, as is, to succeed or fail on its own merits and to find its own audience. Or not.

And with ever greater frequency the overt demand from that audience is not; “Give me a new book for my collection!” It is; “Tell me a story!”

And, given the rapidity of the exchange that now exists between author and reader, the dynamic of that exchange begins to look exactly like a storyteller adressing a large group of children of various ages who require entertainment.

Welcome to the global village.

And the global village storyteller.

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A traditional storyteller will always, if they are to be successful, learn to adapt their story to the audience they are addressing, learn to use the reactions of that audience as their guide in steering the story into completion. Otherwise their audience will wander off, before the hat gets passed around. The story told is, consequently, at its roots, a cooperative venture, not a pronouncement from on high, take it or leave it.

I am about 85% convinced that what we are watching online is a revival, and furthermore, a metamorphosis of the Oral Tradition, transposed, bizarrely enough, into text.

It is happening before our very eyes.

And the result, as always, or, far too often, is to allow the zeitgeist of the times to render the budding story indistinguishable from all the other stories that have preceded it. Because the Oral Tradition inevitably streamlines the elements deployed until they offer the very least resistance to the act of transmission. Details and individualization call attention to themselves and slow the assimilation process, therefore they tend to get discarded in the rush.

Classic storytelling always comes down to something less than the characters. The characters are nearly always subordinate to the plot. In fact, we can expand this to include the basic principles of story structure, (or in actual fact, that generic template of the concept of “story” in popular mythos). The issue of “characters” only kicks in with the deployment of the stock character “types”.

Where the author of a work of “literary merit” ideally has the leisure to fine tune and customize to their hearts content, building something new from the ground up, it seems to be very difficult for a storyteller to “tell a story” which does not resemble every other story, both in its structure and in the behavior of its actors. There are all those culturally dictated “must have” elements and the corresponding “must not do” prohibitions one has to navigate. And the zeitgeist of a given time will always have a major input upon what, inside the story, is considered to be an “appropriate” emotional reaction of the characters to whatever events are deployed in the telling. It’s hardly surprising when a neophyte fanfic writer simply follows the most well-marked path.

A further wrench has been given to the mechanism of popular storytelling by the generally plot-free imitation of this process which has arisen over the last century, and which goes by the name of soap opera. These episodic extravaganzas are not properly even stories, in the traditional sense. They are bread and circuses, and are designed to to pacify the populace in very much the same manner that the original model functioned in classical Rome. In the classical iteration, the purpose was to dissipate the general hooliganism of the lower classes with spectator activities. In the modern iteration the function is to keep us buying soap powder.

My own experience with “daytime television” and its precursor, radio, is meager. However, from what I can gather, its characters still appear to be the traditionally generalized “types” common to storytelling. And their adventures are not driven by the events of an overriding plot, but by their emotional reactions to melodramatic situations into which they are routinely pitched by the unseen puppetmaster, for the audience to watch what happens. Once such a situation is resolved, the viewpoint generally wanders off to watch another situation emoted by another group of puppets with precious little glimmer of there being any final goal in sight. Indeed, the only real goal seems to be to offer sufficient distraction to keep the audience engaged (and buying soap powder) until rigor mortis sets in.

Unfortunately this impulse to aimlessly stumble from situation to situation without benefit of story has managed to infect a great deal of fanfic.

This has become particularly evident in what is now looking like the greater part of the current fanfiction scene, which quite often is not really about literature, or necessarily even about “story” but about “community,” and participation, and in which both the reading and the writing are undertaken as a form of recreation within a group.

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Long ago when the earth’s crust was still cooling, I was active in a group called the Society for Creative Anachronisms. They had a practice, also to be found in Science Fiction fandom — of which the S.C.A. had originally been a splinter group — called the “Bardic Circle”. This usually took place after a tourney or during a revel (or a SF Convention) in which the participants gathered in a circle, and the audience’s attention moved around the group, and when it was your turn, you sang a song, or told a joke, or a story, or recited a poem, or whatever you could think of to entertain the company.

In many ways an online listgroup can come to function very much as a Bardic Circle, although the strict rotation of “turns” is typicaly not invoked. But those who actively participate for any length of time in such a group often feel a degree of (usually completely internal) obligation to contribute a new piece of work to entertain the other members. It seems only fair to reciprocate.

In such an atmosphere even the act of writing — traditionally regarded as a solitary occupation — is as likely to be undertaken as primarily as a social activity as a creative one. In this sort of atmosphere, if the work does not resemble the underlying lowest-common-denominator template common to the group, it sometimes fails to register as a “proper” story. One is operating within a closed loop and it can become very difficult to differentiate the story from the structure, which, if regarded as literature, should only “contain,” but in this context, too often dictates the finished product.

For that matter, in the case of this particular branch of fanwriters, if the writing of a given fanfic is being undertaken as a social activity, there is no certainty that the author even has a bonafide “story” of their own to tell. And may not particularly want one.

It eventually becomes evident to any reader of fanfiction who approaches the exercise with a critical mindset that what a startling percentage of fanwriters seem to want to do is not to tell their friends a new story, but to retell the stories that they all already know — with different costumes, scenery and dialogue, in a weirdly electronic simulation of the Oral Tradition wherein suddenly you have about 14 different variants of what is obviously Snow White, distinguishable only by minor changes to secondary issues.

Which probably accounts for the depressing number of “cookie-cutter” fanfics that abound in most popular fandoms. Particularly in what are known as “challenge fics” which are all written to the same basic “prompt”. The authors are all tacitly agreeing to tell the same 4–5 stories — with varying minor changes to details and dialogue.

It can be a fascinating exercise to watch a storyteller take what is essentially stock material and make something fresh from it. And that can certainly be done. We’ve all watched it happen. Sometimes to impressive effect.

But the result isn’t necessarily a story about the characters it claims to be about. If, all too often, the author, or more properly speaking, the storyteller, finds it easier to just go with the flow, allowing the medium to dictate the message, their stories, however competent the structure, come across as generic and rather flavorless. Particularly in the case of the neophytes who are just getting a grasp of their craft.

On another head; how often have we seen a perfectly good yarn overbalance and sink without a trace due to an ill-conceived piece of “dramatic tension” which has been inserted because the author was convinced that any story has to have one and couldn’t get the balance right?

Some degree of tension (of some variety) is required, or a story falls completely flat. But neos do not always have a good sense of scale, in this, or any other matter, and if you cannot rely on your instincts, you have to work the issue out in technique. And developing technique takes time and practice. What is more, technique is something that is more typically demanded from “authors” than from storytellers. Incompetent storytellers simply lose their audience.

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In the Potterverse, we have all encountered any number of fanfics which appear to be no more than a generic teen romance enacted by generic character types wearing barely recognizable “HP-character” masks, and acting, speaking and responding to the demands of the plot in a manner which is a considerable stretch to try to regard as ‘in character’ by any canon-recognizable (let alone canon-compliant) definition. This is the result of the lowest-common-denominator nature of fanfiction as handled by writers who lack a clear vision of either their sources, or what kind of a story they are trying to tell.

It is a fact not always openly acknowledged that not all characters can be successfully inserted into every variety of story. But it is a fact none the less.

Where there is a fundamental mismatch, either very great skill or a truly compelling vision is necessary to pull the exercise off. Otherwise, while the story may work as a story, the purported characters will refuse to settle in and take up residence in it and the end result will be branded OoC (Out of Character). In fanfic, this is considered highly undesirable.

This particular type of failure pertains to all fandoms which generate fanfic. Once their “creator” has defined the specifics of the canon source it becomes an uphill battle to force generic “types” to make the transition into plausible iterations of the original creator’s slightly more individualized characters, and to keep them “in” those characters over the full course of the action. Particularly if you are attempting to deploy them in a non-canon-compliant context where they do not want to go.

Most fanfic authors do not make a serious attempt at this. Instead, they substitute the “fanon-approved” facsimiles of the creator’s characters, which retain enough of the original character’s traits to be recognizable (all Harry Potters have glasses and a scar. All Hermione Grangers carry books around, All Ron Weasleys have red hair and are a bit hot-headed) but they are far less individualized than Rowling’s characters of the same names and consequently are much more cooperative about being put through maneuvers where their prototypes would never go.

Which, right there, probably explains the vast proliferation of Fanon’s Sensitive!Harry, Jerk!Ron, SoapOpera!Hermione and, heaven help us, SexGod!Snape. The biggest trade-off is that the characterization of these facsimiles is inherently even shallower than that of their canon models, and identification may ultimately depend entirely upon the symbolic accessories that these facsimiles tend to tote around. Much in the way that the traditional representation of saints may be completely interchangeable, but if one is accompanied by a pig he is probably intended to represent St. Anthony.

It has become ever more obvious to me over the past few years that with a growing frequency the determination of fanwriters to demand that these “canon” characters behave in a manner that is completely unnatural to them, is because the fanon puppets are standing in, not for the canon originals, but for yet other unidentified characters who simply do not exist in canon. In quite a few cases these show up in the works of authors who really do want to “write”. And sometimes in the work of ones who not only can write, but actually have a bonafide story to tell, to boot.

However, what many of these authors (and they really do seem to be “authors”) really seem to want to write is original fiction set in the canon author’s world with their own characters undertaking the adventure in place of the originals. But they have acquired the underlying conviction that if they write out the story they really want to tell, and base it upon non-canon characters, people will refuse to read it, automatically translating any hint of a “non-canon character” into the dreaded “Mary Sue”.

Too often their fears (both the authors’ and the readers’) are justified. But that still does not really excuse the practice of claiming that the story is “about” Miss Hermione Jean Granger, when the story is actually “about” some generic soap opera ingenue (generally American) in a bushy wig and a Hermione Granger mask. This is popularly referred to as a “canon-rip”, and while rather a lot of authors get away with it, one can never depend upon being one of them.

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As to the problem of non-canon characters: despite all of the people who immediately claim that they “don’t like non-canon characters”, I have yet to hear any of them continue to apply this statement to the cases where the storyteller has managed to produce a good one.

A good character is a good character. Period. The real problem is that in the hands of tryos in nearly all cases the actual characterization of these “original” characters is simply too shallow to carry the story — any story — successfully. This kind of overly-thin characterization shows up immediately when there isn’t a canon source available, hovering in the background to be visible through, and thereby mentally fill in the gaps.

In point of fact, the interpretations of the typical fanon characters in most fanfiction (in most fandoms, I suspect) are, almost invariably, every bit as shallow as any of those of the clumsy OCs that most people have no qualms about saying that they don’t like. But this tends to be forgiven because the story has to be about somebody and since the fans all “know” the titular lead characters they automatically fill in the blanks in the characterizations themselves (much in the way that Rowling left readers to mentally fill in the myriad gaps in her worldbuilding). They usually only speak up to complain when something clearly contradicts their own underlying interpretation of those characters.

This practice perpetuates itself when storytellers slack off and permit the audience’s expectations to do the work of setting up the premise of the story for them. And they frequently are permitted to get away with it, too. (Rowling certainly was.)

Which puts any aspiring author who is trying to develop some actual “literary” chops into a damned-if-you-do/damned-if-you-don’t position. For these aspirants, perhaps a well-realized OC is actually the best direction to go. After all, you may even be able to file off the fandom-specific serial numbers later and sell it. There are rather a lot of fics out there in which the story and (off-canon) characterizations are powerful and evocative enough to carry the reader along, to the point that eventually the attempt to claim that the story is about the canon characters is really more of a disservice than anything else. And rather painful to watch.

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Another somewhat uncomfortable, but inescapable fact is that with a few notable exceptions, fanfiction tends to register at about the same level of literary merit as a hairdrier book. Like a hairdrier book, it provides a pleasant distraction to keep you settled and occupied until the external misery is over. This is not a criticism. In the Real day-to-day World, one tends to have a greater actual need for a few good hairdrier books than all the “literary” tea in China.

Reading “literature” is a challenge, a hobby, an actual project which calls for some conscious and voluntary effort and rewards you with a sense of accomplishment (and, usually, a bit more understanding of where people of a different generation were actually “coming from”). Reading a hairdrier book is what you do to decompress.

And this is the way the audience generally wants it.

In those instances where someone does succeed in producing something of noticeably higher literary caliber, it generally manages to find an audience of its own. But it may catch endless flack from the “fangurrls” in the process. The fangurrls don’t want to be offered literature, thank you very much. They want you to tell them a story. In many cases they want you to tell them the story that they have already decided they want to hear. No alternatives need apply. If they are determined upon hearing Red Riding Hood, even the most artistic Sleeping Beauty will not be welcome.

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The fact also remains that at its most fundamental level, the Oral Tradition is at least partially a class thing. The Oral Tradition is made up of “peasants’ tales” for all that they are so often supposedly “about” royalty. (They are nothing of the sort. They are about a peasant’s concept of royalty.)

The sensibilities of the hairdrier book are those that have been co-opted by the afternoon soap opera. And the afternoon soap is notoriously a constant reiteration of the most recalcitrantly reactionary of working class values decked out in upper-middle class trappings. In the long run all events in a soap invariably pan out to support the values of “Mrs Grundy” and all of her narrow-minded, moralistic, conservative status quo, with, typically, no sophistication in its presentation whatsoever.

Or any particular degree of taste or restraint, either. Everything is driven by ‘big’ events and ‘big’ reactions. Anyone who steps outside the very narrowest of acceptable social roles within the paradigm of a soap-opera must be shown to be summarily punished — at great length — for the viewer’s edification, however innocently they may have been misled or even forced into that untenable position. Much angst and bathos ensue, and any provisionally happy ending is dependent upon the victim being a good little Cinderella and taking whatever unjust karmic “punishment” is dished out with their “inner sweetness” unabated. This is not “dramatic”. It is certainly not romantic, it is melodrama in its purest form.

And the fanfic authors admit as much. Although of course nobody wants to actually admit that they are writing something with such a non-U classification, or as dodgy a reputation as “melodrama”, so they screw with the language and claim that what they are writing is “angst”. There is no such genre as Angst. Angst is an emotional state. You might as reasonably claim you are writing “Ennui”. And, in some cases, with about as much accuracy.

Literature, on the other hand, once it finishes the endurance triathlon which any work seems to be required to run before it will be acclaimed as such, is, at its origins, nearly always attempting to groom itself for the consumption of a “thoughtful”, and educated, middle class, regardless of it’s actual content or subject matter. (Just in case there is anyone reading this who hasn’t twigged to it yet, stories are not necessarily written primarily for the consumption of people of either the age nor the social class of the protagonist.) Usually with some kind of classifiable style, and generally with highly mixed results, which is probably one of the reasons such works manage to survive the experience of being mauled about in English classes for generations and yet still are able offer something to the reader who has picked them up without actually being forced to it.

It is not that often that this kind of individualized resilience can be claimed by any specific piece of fanfiction, regardless of how popular. In the natural course of things, all fanfiction will ultimately be displaced by a later work of similar merit, and similar character which, like the rabbits of ‘Watership Down’s’ culture hero, will have become identified with and indistinguishable from the original. Most fanfic, after all, is “written in water”, eventually drying into obscurity.

But that takes a bit of time. And in the meantime it's here for us to enjoy.