Saturday, April 30, 2022

reeling from a time abyss

I found the time abyss in a miscellaneous assorted box of old cassette tapes that I decided to clean out. It turned out to be a recording of some of the programming from Mythcon X. That was in 1979, 43 years ago. The most interesting item was a panel discussing reactions to a then rather newly published book, The Silmarillion. The panelists weren't named, nor are they listed in the con's program book. Here's where having been there was of help: I was able to identify all of them by voice and manner of speaking.

One of them was myself. The second was Jim Allan - scholar Guest of Honor at the con, and the first important scholar of Tolkien's invented languages. The third was Jim Wallace, sometime president of the Fantasy Association, a MythSoc spinoff group. I haven't been in touch with Jim Allan for many years now, but I did stay in contact with Jim Wallace until he died about eight years ago. Was it spooky to hear his voice again? A little, but it's more that it brought back memories.

One of the things we talked about at some length on this panel was ... fan fiction. Yes! In 1979! And the reason we were talking about fan fiction was in reaction to our shared comment about how sketchy The Silmarillion was. It was full of tales told only in the briefest of outline, or not told at all but only referred to, sometimes with reference to how the full story appears in ... some other imaginary document. This generates the urge to tell some of these stories that Tolkien never got around to, and thus fan fiction. We made reference to the only easily-available Tolkien fan fiction at the time, Marion Zimmer Bradley's stories The Jewel of Arwen and The Parting of Arwen. Both of these, though based on The Lord of the Rings, have the same function as what we were imagining: to fill in parts of the story that Tolkien left out.

Then what should happen, soon after I listened to this tape, was to have the opportunity to participate in a Zoom discussion of scholarly study of Tolkien fan fiction, with guest speaker Dawn Walls-Thumma, author of this article on fan fiction, which I found interesting enough to want to discuss. Among the points she makes is that the oft-cited distinction in Tolkien fan fiction between "bookverse" and "movieverse" is somewhat illusory: even dedicated movie-inspired writers will draw material from the book as well, in part because there's so much to draw from.

So what I wondered was whether there was a distinction between those who, like us in 1979, seek to write in Tolkien's spirit and merely to fill in gaps in his stories, and those who, like many writers today, write altering the characters to be whatever they want - to, in the words of one of the participants, re-invent the myth to fit their contemporary needs. And the answer turned out to be yes: the technical terms in fan-fic criticism are "affirmational" and "transformational," that while transformational fic predominates, there are affirmational writers, some of them so dedicated they seek to replicate Tolkien's literary style as well as his form of content (no word on how well they achieve this). It's nice to know that.

Another point made at this meeting which gratified me was a distinction between fan fiction and reactive fiction in general. Advocates of fan fiction often try to validate and legitimize their activity by co-opting all fiction that reacts and responds to earlier works and call it fan fiction, e.g. Paradise Lost is Bible fan fiction. But it's not. It's like the definition of fandom itself: fanac is not defined by its content - it can be about anything - but by the context in which it's done, that of fandom. Similarly, fan fiction is a communal activity with certain characteristics, among them that it's not commercial - you'll note that back in 1979 we didn't cite Bored of the Rings as fan fiction, because it's not, it's a commercial parody - and, particularly important to the person making this point, it's predominantly women writers. Claim Milton and Shakespeare for fan fiction, you're just putting the same dead white males in charge again. It's like science fiction writers claiming Gilgamesh and Lucian of Samosata as their progenitors: those you're seeking to impress will not be paying attention to your claims.

But the co-opting of distinguished past reactive fiction as fan fiction has an aim beyond self-aggrandizement. It is to legitimize a form often denigrated as illegitimate and parasitic. See, they say, if Milton could do the Bible I can do it to the latest novel or TV show, and the creators have no cause to complain. But the objection being raised by authors to fan fiction of their own works isn't against the aesthetic right to be transformative or reactive, it's on the legal and moral question of invading the under-copyright work of living authors. (n.b. that Tolkien is no longer living, and while his work is still under copyright, under a reasonable time limit much of it would no longer be.)

(Oh, and the cassette? On its way to the MythSoc archives at Southwestern Oklahoma State U.)

No comments:

Post a Comment