Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Is fanfic derivative or constitutive of fiction?

A few days ago, a good friend of mine, Phil (man of honor at my wedding, photographer of my portrait on my website and also my blogger profile pic!, and excellent artist), posted a landscape that he'd recently completed. Because it's publicly posted on FB, I'll copy it here:

I had the strangest sense of recognition when I saw it -- this was a place that I knew. So I posted a casual comment on the post, "Lemme guess: Middle Earth". I spent a large amount of time inside my head in Middle Earth as a child, and this image seemed to me to be a picture straight out of my head. My comment was rather flip in that I hadn't put any effort into articulating the feelings and thoughts behind why I identified it as that, but I was forced to think some more about this by his reply: "Nothing nearly so derivative."

Derivative? If he thought my comment implied that the image was derivative, then I need to think very closely about what exactly my views are, because I do not see this as derivative at all. Lying in bed this morning, trying to sort my thoughts out, I realized that what I want is a view in which art like this would be constitutive rather than derivative.

If you take a possible-worlds account of fiction* (i.e., every fiction describes/picks out a possible world (or perhaps an impossible one if you have an author who sometimes slips into contradiction)), then in what way would such a work of art be derivative? One would have to adopt some sort of Lewisian view of these fictions -- that they are really out there, and that we are merely describing or depicting them, in a similar way that historians and artists describe and depict real events. While I do not in general lean towards Lewisian modal realism, in the contex of fictions I think there is an added extra pull that the view has: With extremely well-crafted fictions, one does indeed have the feeling that the author is doing more than merely making things up, that he is telling you things that really exist, and are really out there, and are so independently of whether he ever told you them. This is certainly the feeling I get with Tolkien; the sheer depth and scope of the world building makes it easy to feel that it is really out there, and that he is simply relating someone else's story, not making one up. I had a similar feeling when finishing the Wheel of Time series. I had been re-reading the series each time a new volume was published, but then I moved overseas (difficult to get used sci-if/fantasy in English in the Netherlands) and was buried in writing a dissertation, and I fell behind, and eventually decided to wait until they were all out before reading the entire series straight through (for similar reasons, I'm doing the same thing with the Game of Thrones books; but I'm still in the waiting period for them!). I remember being uncertain how the changing-of-the-authors would go; and was surprised to find that it ended up enhancing the realism. Sanderson's writing style is enough different from Jordan's that one had the feeling that one was reading a history where the chronicler changed part-way through. This sense of "different writer, same story" enhanced the feeling that the story was more than just something created in the head of the author (for if that were the case, it is unclear to what extent someone else could've had sufficient access to that mental content to continue on with the story, if the mental content only existed in the mind of the original author).

On such a view, a painting like this, if it were a painting of Middle Earth, would have to count as derivative, as derivative of heading to the continent to paint the Italian countryside, no matter how bizarre a representation you end up obtaining (cf. Escher's woodcuts of Italy. They are clearly derivative of reality, though they are strongly influenced by imagination.) It is an advantage of this view that it allows the creation of derivative works, for it gives us one way of understanding what happens in the creation/production of fanfic: There is some real world or story out there, and many people have access to it and have the ability to tell different parts of the story or describe (including, e.g., paint/draw) different parts of the world. This view also allows us a way to ground claims such as that the Brother Hildebrandt got all of the Tolkienian characters right -- except for Sam. Or that the casters of the Lord of the Rings movie erred when casting Liv Tyler as the most beautiful person since Luthien Tinuviel. Such claims rely on there being an actual fact of the matter.

But I think this view also gets some of these things wrong, and I will highlight two in particular. First, there are certain things about which one feels that there is no fact of the matter, that no amount of inspection of the fictional world would ever answer certain questions one way or another. (A very interesting question raised in a book I was reading recently -- I think it's L. Sprague de Camp's Literary Swordsmen and Sorcerers: The Makers of Heroic Fantasy but I don't have it on hand to confirm -- is where is the religion in Middle Earth? It is unclear what aspects about the world itself, as opposed to aspects about Tolkien as an author, that could answer this question). Second, the very production of fanfic raises questions with an account which makes fanfic derivative, and that is because not all fanfic is considered equal. Some of it becomes canon; some of it doesn't; and the ways in which canon is distinguished from non-canon is not generally in terms of some descriptive account, some method of viewing the fictional world through a telescope, to use Kripke's analogy. Instead, in certain cases it seems that fanfic becomes canon precisely because it is constitutive of the fiction, it constitutes a new part or portion of the story or world that did not exist before, and it does so in a specific way. It is not merely that the new story is consistent with the activities (or even the character's intentions, mental states, even dare I say character) of the story-so-far; such a view would be, in contrast with the Lewisian view noted above, a Kripkean view, the idea that possible worlds are defined by stipulation, with the only constraint being consistency. Not every story that is consistent with the original story is eligible to become canon. How fanfic becomes canon is in large parts a social process -- whereby sufficient agreement that the story is canon is engendered -- but even without considering this aspect, I think it is still possible to say that certain fanfics are simply not eligible. Let me give an example:

My first foray into fanfic happened when I was 10, though I didn't know it at the time. Having read and fallen in love with the Lord of the Rings, and being crushed at the fact that it ended (I didn't yet know about the Silmarillion, nor do I think I would have enjoyed or appreciated it at age 10; I certainly didn't yet enjoy it when I first read it at age 18), I did what only seemed natural to a budding writer: I wrote a sequel. Fargon's Castle picks up on the promise that Sam received that one day, he too might sail to the West, because he, too, was once a ring-bearer. Of course, the West is not what it was hinted at being, and our heros have a brand new set of adventures. Three books after Fargon's Castle were planned, of which I got about half-way into the second one; I no longer even remember the title or topic of the third one; and I have only the title left of the fourth (Horizon Road). My parents had roughly a dozen copies of Fargon's Castle printed and bound, with hand-drawn maps (by my mother) on the inside front cover. I know where fewer than half of them ended up, and someday the other half-dozen or so will be valuable archive material. :) Now, setting aside the lack of the necessary social scaffolding that could have introduced this to a wider audience, this story could not have become canon because while it was consistent with what was said in Lord of the Rings itself, it was not consistent with the wider world that Tolkien built, because I was unfamiliar with the entire scope of it at the time. But I would like to reserve the possibility that someone else could write something that could enter the canon. (While at the same time wholly rejecting the changes made to the story of The Hobbit when it was made into a movie, which being directly inconsistent with what we know of the story mean that it cannot be taken as correct, even stipulatively.) One possibility I would like to proffer concerns conlangs (constructed languages, usually developed in fictional contexts). When one looks at how these conlangs are designed, constructed, and implemented (for a fascinating account of this, see David J. Peterson's Art of Language Invention), it is hard to give a derivative rather than constitutive account of these languages. It is not that Peterson is "discovering" or "recovering" some actual extant grammar, vocabulary, phonetics, script, etc., but that he is in fact inventing and constructing them. They did not exist before he created them, but after he has created them they quickly become constitutive of the fictions themselves in a very concrete way -- the Game of Thrones being a clear example of this, as Martin had no systematization behind his original uses of Dothraki words and phrases, this coming only after Peterson was hired to extend and expand the fragment into a robust language with a "history". But now that the language exists, it has been taken back into the writing of the books, and is now used in a systematized and meaningful fashion. So here is a clear case of something which is not derivative but is robustly constitutive.

At this point I don't have any concrete theory or account to offer, and there are still many facets of this that I want to explore (in particular, I have yet to work out even rudimentarily how all of these facets intersect with music, in particular, epic metal albums which are designed to tell a story. In the last few days I've been listening quite a bit to the album "King of Kings" by Leaves' Eyes, which tells a heavily fictionalized version of the heavily fictionalized story of how Harald Fairhair became the first king of all Norway. To the extent that it is historical, it is derivative; but to the extent to which it is constitutive, can it be historical? Simply in virtue of their media, that stories that are told in concept albums are of a different sort from the ones that are told in writing, and I'd love to explore further the exact nature of these differences and where they come from.

So let's return to the original image I started off with. When I view it as a Middle Earth landscape, I was viewing it in a constitutive sense, as creating a part of Middle Earth that perhaps did not exist before, creating it by the very process of painting it, whereas the artist himself wants to reject that possibility because he thinks it entails a derivative account of the production of fiction. I'm not sure I agree. (And Phil, I look forward to hearing what you have to say in response!)


* I am not convinced that I do.

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