Last week, friend of the blog Renay posted the second installment of her new column at Strange Horizons, in which she discussed and expressed discomfort with creators (or authors) walking into fan (or reader) discussions without invitation. The ensuing maelstrom was entirely disproportionate, but, as things have died down, there’s been some good discussion. Renay herself did a round-up over at ladybusiness.
But the one thing that I think is missing from the discussion (and the reason I’m jumping in at the last moment) is the larger historical context of fandom—the why for the skittishness of those of us who identify as fans around those whose texts we consume. I disagree with Renay’s position that all reviews are fanwork, so the following doesn’t apply to all or even most book bloggers, but there are plenty of fans who write reviews, be it as structured as a book blog or as loose as a comment on TrekMovie.com.
The fannish fourth wall that Renay cites in her column has a lot of reason to exist—heck, three years ago, Diana Gabaldon called fanfiction “immoral.” (And this from a woman whose hero Jamie was inspired by Doctor Who‘s own Jamie!) Even in a best case scenario, media fandom sometimes feels the need to create private spaces for discussion and fan labor. LucasFilm is known for having a good relationship with their fans. From 2002 to 2012, it hosted the Official Star Wars Fan Film Awards. (It’s been discontinued, a decision presumably made by Disney after the buyout.) But that very involvement in fandom drove some fans away. The reason you don’t see Han/Luke slash on the same scale as anything from Star Trek, the mothership itself, is because LucasFilm got involved with the fanzines and asked them not to publish anything that would violate the original film’s rating. Some fans wanted to be more involved with the creators, so they consented; other fans bristled at being told how to interpret their favored text, so they just went further underground.
(You ever just daydream about all the fanzines that have never surfaced? Just me? Okay.)
As fandom began actively building that fourth wall, they ended up—knowingly or unknowingly, depending on the fan—buying into French literary critic Roland Barthes’ essay, “The Death of the Author.” As Barthes states:
To give an Author to a text is to impose upon that text a stop clause, to furnish it with a final signification, to close the writing.
According to Michael Chabon, the space for fandom is created when a text “hint[s] at things beyond its own borders” (Manhood for Amateurs, 80). Fandom is generated by that interpretative play by fans in those empty spaces, whether it’s something as straight forward and cheerful as wondering about the further adventures of the Firefly crew (its cancellation is actually a reason for its remarkably long-lived fandom) or as serious as examining Steven Moffat’s work on Doctor Who and coming away horrified. If fandom thrives in these blank spots on the map, you can see why it can be an issue when authors come into these spaces and these discussions—they’re filling in the lines by simply being there. Some of us (l’m pretty stubborn and very good at repressing things) can continue to riot in the subtext by treating the text as canon and everything else as optional, but the word of an author does have significant weight, especially among their faithful. They have the power to declare what is “right” (canon) and what is “wrong” (not canon), whether they intend to or not, and to a community built around exploring all the possibilities, that’s dangerous stuff. There’s a reason TVTropes calls it “Word of God.”
The advent of the Internet and free blogging platforms has both made it easier for fans to find each other and authors to find their fans. The fannish fourth wall is deteriorating, especially with the next generation of fandom growing up on tumblr without much guidance from older fans. (In short: the tumblrinas are feral.) This is both a good thing and a bad thing. Once upon a time, fans waited for a pretty piece of canon to slip out of a creator’s mouth. My Trekkie foremothers didn’t know what Kirk’s middle name was for years. Now, we can go straight to the source. But more often, the source comes to us: Pottermore finds J. K. Rowling furiously filling in all the blank spaces on her own map. Word of God now has a flip side, one that I will call God Moding.
Cabin in the Woods (which, incidentally, Renay totally encouraged me to watch) is both the perfect and only example of God Moding I can give you. Essentially, it’s a thesis on horror films conveyed in the medium itself. Joss Whedon and the production team have stated what Cabin in the Woods “really” means, which is well within their rights to do. But it’s also why Cabin in the Woods doesn’t have a fandom on the scale of, say, Star Trek: because the author has specifically stated what the text is “supposed” to mean, there’s precious few blank spots for fandom to grow in. Assigning something an author gives that author the power to God Mode. (This actually might be why large-scale book fandoms can seem few in comparison to similarly-sized television, film, and comics fandoms, because the latter fandoms’ texts are not the work of a single person. This is changing with YA series at the moment, but I think the idea still holds.) Luckily, Cabin in the Woods is the only example I’ve personally encountered, but it perfectly encapsulates what fans fear when authors step into fannish discussions: the limitation of interpretation and discussion, which limits fandom itself.
This is what authors need to be careful and aware of: their own power. I don’t think there’s a one size fits all solution to all creator/fan interactions, save, of course, being respectful of discussion, not feeling entitled to defend your work against all comers (I’m looking at you, Bob Orci), and asking if you’re unsure if this is the place for you. It’s case by case, like all human interaction. Ultimately, I think we can all learn from the words of our Electric Lady, Janelle Monáe:
AVC: Do you see there being a wrong way to interpret your work?
JM: It’s not up to me to tell you how to take in music. Sometimes you just won’t move people, and sometimes you’ll move a lot of people. It’s out of love, and once you add it to the world it’s yours and it belongs to you. I just pray and hope that it inspires and empowers and influences your life in a very positive way, influences you to be the best you can be by listening to this music.