Monday, May 30, 2011

Fanfiction, fiction and reality

I am a fan of fanfiction. Whenever I am faced with a new story, whatever the medium it is expressed in maybe, I am aware of the new world that it has brought into existence. The infinity of possible narratives that can spring up from one narrative : interpretations, elaborations, interpolations, extrapolations, modifications... overwhelm me. My discovery of fanfiction in its latest incarnation brought with it the revelation that a narrative is never complete, or definite in any way, for that matter. This was not new idea, I had come into contact with it in one form or the other several times before. But, faced with the deluge of hundreds of thousands of narratives that had sprung up from one book or anime, the idea was forced into the forefront of my consciousness, unlike the gentle nudging that accompanied all my reading before.

What is also interesting for me are the unspoken rules that evolved, and now accompany fanfiction: a particular fanfic could be judged to follow the canon, while another could be adjudged AU, but still a fanfic of the same piece of fiction. Fanfics are commended for originality, but readers are quick to deride narratives that are too alien, that snap the tenuous link that connects a fanfic to the original.

This brings me to the debate regarding the respective values of various forms of narrative. The realist narrative (word changed from 'tradition' earlier), it is said, mirrors reality, and hence is valuable as an honest chronicle of the state of affairs. Fantasy on the other hand (I include science fiction in this) narrates a story based on imaginary conditions, and hence its value is dubious.

This debate stumped me for a long time. I knew I liked fantasy genre, considered it valuable, but could not explain why. It was the workings of fanfiction that finally shed some light on the issue for me. I realised that fantasy is not baseless imagination. Or more to the point, much like AU fanfics that are too alien (with respect to the canon) are rejected, fantasy that is too alien is rejected.

Realist narrative mirrors (or at least tries to) what is there, there is nothing hidden, no circumspection, a depiction of reality as is. Fantasy moves away from reality, follows a narrative that is unlike any reality, but, it is not baseless, it does not snap the tenuous connection that ties it to reality (as I said earlier, those that are too alien are rejected), it merely engages with it in a circumspect manner. Is there value to be found here?


  1. Hi,

    Great post, enjoyed it (also it's about one of my obsessions, i.e. literary realism...)

    I have a bit of a problem with your argument regarding the value of fantasy fiction. Well two in fact. First, your model of realism needs nuancing. Saying that realism mirrors reality is fine, and it makes some kind of sense as a generalisation, but the problem is that it doesn't really tell us much about the particular realism of the novel. One question, which I think is at least as important as the general idea of mirroring reality, is that of what "reality" is being represented. Some obvious examples of variance in this, albeit totally generic and questionable as generalisations but just to make what I mean clearer: social realism: Dickens, Eliot, Zola, Fielding; moral realism, Tolstoy, Eliot; psychological realism: James, Richardson, Rousseau; psychological realism (Mark II): Woolf, Joyce. Etc, etc. And then we can't forget that when Dante wrote La Divinia Commedia, he believed that he had portrayed true reality.

    Besides, realism in the novel is so much more than just the portrayal of reality. The first chapter of Ian Watt's The Rise of the Novel can suggest some ways of thinking about this. Broadly speaking, Watt links the rise of realism to a massive philosophical shift between the mediaeval and the modern, the shift from universals to particulars. You can certainly argue with that, but if so you need to provide an alternative philosophical frame for the rise of realism, or else argue that such is unnecessary, either because realism existed anyway for centuries, or else because you think realism is the consequence primarily of socio-economic shifts.

    Secondly, you're trying to revaluate fantasy, which you feel unjustly scorned. But your argument actually makes just the realist ideologue's point (as you imagine it to be), i.e. that realism is superior to fantasy because it more closely mirrors reality. If you claim that fantasy is actually worthwhile because it in fact does mirror reality, you're not escaping this paradigm. It's true that the novel did sometimes make such claims about itself when it was trying to enhance its prestige as literary genre, and to distinguish itself from the kinds of narrative that it grew out of. However it's actually quite a questionable argument anyway, or at least one that only works within a general framework where some kind of empiricism is assumed. Besides, it's very rare for any kind of theorising about the novel to make such a claim quite so bluntly (thought there's absolutely no doubt that it's there in the background).

    Sorry about long, badly formulated reply. Just thought your post deserved to be taken seriously.

  2. My post is too short. I planned to write an essay on the topic, but never got around to doing it. So, I thought I'd at least put the thought out there, instead of letting a titled blank page waste away on my computer.

    A mistake I find myself making quite often, unfortunately, is the usage of terms that have a specific meaning in a particular context in either a much broader sense or in an entirely different context without spelling out what it is that I am doing.

    I was aware of how specifically situated 'realism' is in western literary history, but I still used it as a much more general term here. I will try to correct it.

    In any case, by realist narrative, I meant an attempt to portray what is thought to be reality by the portrayer. Whether the portrayer succeeds is another issue. What the criteria should be, or whether there could be any criteria at all, to judge if the narrative is realist or not is another issue too. Also, I did not go into the details of the different possible strands of realism because my concern here was the idea of realism and its value without going into its particular aspects. Of course, it could be that what is applicable to social realism is not applicable to moral realism and so on, but the conclusions the could be drawn about realism at the more general level should be applicable to all.

    I am not making the argument that narrative needs to mirror reality to be valuable, though it might have appeared that way. My point was that narrative that goes too far from what is perceived to be reality becomes alien and is rejected. What the realist narrative aspires to is only one extreme of an entire gamut of possibilities. Fanfiction that follows the canon to closely becomes boring. Narrative that mirrors reality too closely becomes boring: this statement might not be as self evident as the former. Because, do we not appreciate narratives that appear to be realist on a daily basis? But it is not our reality, is it? We appreciate them because they are someone else's reality; realist narrative of our own reality would be like a fanfic that follows canon too closely, like a book one has read too many times.

    Fantasy narrative is also from someone else's reality, though we are aware from the outset that it is an imagined reality, one the author (not confined to fiction) doesn't claim empirical experience of.

  3. I will continue this. I posted the comment because I couldn't save it.

  4. By the way, I think it's really great you decided to start a blog!

    I understand of course that you were just putting up some musings without trying to be rigorous...

    Re you reply to my comment. If you use the term "realism" in the context of a discussion of the literary portrayal of reality, I don't think you can expect people to understand anything by it _except_ "literary realism". It's true, as you suggest in your reply that literary realism is actually extremely difficult to pin down. In fact, any attempt to examine it should probably include an indication of how it (i.e. that partcular discussion) will understand it. But one of my problems with your post is that, for the reasons I mentioned, saying that "realism = portraying reality" is really very unsatisfactory. Nor can you make arguments about realism without pinning down precisely what it is, in its various incarnations. Otherwise you are just floating about. Sorry for being "dryasdust" scholarly about this.

    I can't actually join in specifically to your argument about fanfiction as a genre, since I don't know what it is! Well, ok, I just looked it up on Wikipedia now, but this is the first I've heard of it. Nonetheless, I'm still not convinced that you're escaping the realist paradigm, even given your clarifications. In any case, you're still claiming that realist narrative is just an attempt to portray reality, without refining that any further, and that claim is for me deeply problematic. Your other arguments about why it is we appreciate realist narrative, or about how it should be valued, are quite speculative.

    But your attempt to correlate the marginalisation of fanfiction and fantasy with the prestige of the realist novel is absolutely spot on, and it's what I thought most interesting about your post. Margaret Doody (in _The True Story of the Novel_) has a suggestive, brief analysis of this marginalisation in its historico-literary context (it's in her chapter on the eighteenth century).