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I’ve been a fool and I’ve been blind, I can never leave the past behind

January 3, 2012

I read two articles today that kind of got me shaking a little bit- the first was a really well-written piece by Drew McWeeny at HitFix about “Life in the Age of Fanfiction,” and the second was about the original ending for the new Muppets movie, which I am not ashamed to say I enjoyed immensely.

(below the cut, because it’s long! And kind of boring to anyone who doesn’t care about Fan Stuff!)

McWeeny contends that all the big tentpole movies of the past few years- the Nolan Batman movies, the successful Marvel universe films like Iron Man and the upcoming Avengers*, the Lord of the Rings and the Hobbit and the Muppets- are all basically big-budget fanficiton. Jason Segel’s profession of love for the Muppets in countless interviews is the best example that comes to mind. Essentially, the Avengers and all the superhero movies and the Sherlock reboot and every time someone remakes Great Expectations are all evidence of the fanficiton culture- it’s not a reboot so much as “this time, I get to do it my way.” He takes his inspiration from another HitFix article, a review of The Muppets by Alan Sepinwall, who writes about the joy that a well-executed reboot of a classic series or set of character can bring to a fan, about how the characters that held resonance for us as children can still have that resonance today if put into the hands of a loving re-creator. But Sepinwall doesn’t go so far as to say that The Muppets is a great movie in and of itself: “Is it a great movie in its own right? I don’t know. I think it’s a very good movie, and among the more joyful experiences I’ve had at a movie theater in a long, long time, but a lot of its success leans on its ability to mimic the Muppets’ greatest hits.” And, Bradshaw-style, this got me thinking- what does this mean, given my propensity for revisiting the same cultural products over and over? What does this mean about my own creativity, my own work? And what does this mean for my complicated relationship to fandom?

I’ve had an uneasy relationship with my own fandom, loosely defined, for most of my adult life. Fanfiction was one of the first things I found on the internet, and boy, did my parents hate the phone bills that resulted. It takes a long time to read something on dialup and I was too embarassed about it to print the stories out and read them offline. So in thirty-minute chunks I started out with star wars, then (briefly) into RPF (I won’t say who, but it rhymes with Lanson and yes, I was 13) and then in college when I came back to the fold it was for Doctor Who. I even wrote fanfiction my sophomore year, a multipart Firefly/Doctor Who crossover, the first of it’s kind (I am pretty sure), in an LJ community called Time & Chips devoted to 9/Rose.

I never finished it.

It wasn’t because it wasn’t good- on the contrary, parts of it are among my favorite things I have ever written. Emo and overwrought as it was, I had fun with those characters. It was a sandbox of my own creation, even if the toys inside belonged to someone else. Every so often I take it back out– I only have the word docs, not the final, posted form, because in a fit of pique I deleted my livejournal junior year– and reread it, wondering if I should finish it. I even knew who the Big Bad would be. And every time I take it out I put it away again, thinking, “maybe later.” After all, there is other, more original writing I could be doing. (Like updating this blog, says no one!)

My senior year in college I took a journalism class where our final project was a long-form “article.” We could pick anything we want, and I chose to write about fanfiction. I remember pitching it to my professor, a visiting professor from a major newspaper. I remember saying “There is this thing called fanfiction, and I want to write about it,” and I remember explaining exactly what it was and watching her eyes get wide. “So, imagine that you love the show Grey’s Anatomy, and you really like that Meredith Grey and Dr. Shepherd as a couple. But then the show decides that Meredith Grey is now going to date this other person. There are people on the internet, mostly girls, who write stories about what they wish or imagine would happen to the characters in their favorite television shows and movies.”** I told her about the multipart epics, the authors who got book deals after an early career writing fanfiction, about the almost all-female community, about and livejournal and all this crap and at the end of it she said OK so I went off and wrote pretty much the laziest, least introspective article I could possibly write about something that had consumed most of my adult life. Re: the laziness, in my defense, I was writing my senior thesis at the time. Even so, reading it now is a little embarassing (Can you see I have issues with regret? Talk to me sometime about all of high school). What strikes me now, in the wake of these articles today and my repeated viewings of The Mummy, is how unrestrainedly positive I was about fan-created narratives.

“It always starts with love. Love for a television show, for a movie, for a book, for a band. Love requires proximity, and the nature of the medium dictates that you can’t get close with a television show. But for “active” fans, the dictates of the medium are meaningless. After all, imagination doesn’t have boundaries. Anyone who felt kinship with a fictional character when they were younger, who fantasized about roaming the prairie with Laura Ingalls or driving with Speed Racer or being pals with Kermit the Frog or anything else has felt that sense of closeness, of understanding. The difference for writers of fanfiction is there’s no limit to how involved you can be with a show—when the movie ends, their creativity picks up, driving fictional proximity to unheard-of lengths.”

I quoted someone who was academically interested in fan and media studies as saying that when she was younger, she was “this crazy little girl… who wanted to crawl inside stories.” I thought (and still think) that is a lovely way of putting almost any artistic endeavor, especially one that is in any way narrative-related. I love crawling inside stories- that’s why I love my job now, especially when I find a story that forces me to sit up, to take notice, to fall in headfirst. But in my own life of media consumption, I tend to not be very adventurous with the stories I seek out and consume. Remember those viewings of The Mummy I mentioned? It’s embarassing how many times I’ve watched that movie since it came out on DVD. Usually I’ll just put it on in the background, to have something to listen to as I do something else. This is a comfortable story. These are characters I know. This is a world I recognize and a narrative that still holds joy and excitement for me. It’s why I reread books. It’s why I’ve seen every episode of Criminal Minds, some of them at least twice. (OK, bad example- I’m not going to say that the narratives of Criminal Minds hold excitement. It’s brain crack, pure and simple.) I’m crawling inside the same stories so often I might as well put down a security deposit and start paying rent. This doesn’t mean I’m not finding new stories to love, or that I never seek out original entertainment. But I think it says something about me- and about my friends who do this, and about everyone I follow on Tumblr and on the internet who does this, and about everyone who dreams of having the opportunity to remake their favorite TV series and then gets to do it. I think it says we are more comfortable in the past than with creating the future.

I mean, I would certainly say this of myself. As a person who is a chronic worrier, sometimes, the world is just a little much. 130 staff members from Medecins Sans Frontieres disappeared in the South Sudan? Episode of Criminal Minds. The horrifying waking nightmare that is the GOP nomination race? Fuck it, I’m going to watch Thor again. And again. And again. If we just watch enough television maybe it will all just go away. Maybe I was wrong in that paper. Maybe it doesn’t start with love- maybe it starts with recognition and familiarity.

It won’t, though. What will our children be nostalgic for? Is the glut of remakes and reboots and reimaginings just a way for us to say to little Adama when he’s old enough that “If you like the Muppets, you should see the original. It’s way better.” That’s not to say that there is nothing original in the world of media today, or that there are no reboots with original ideas. McWeeny points out the new Star Trek reboot as one of the “good” ones, where expectations were played with in an interesting way. I would point to Battlestar Galactica, as well. But Community is still one of my favorite shows on television, and at the end of the day, Greendale might as well be called Pastiche Valley.

I guess at the end of the day, the urge to crawl inside stories depends on how you develop that urge. After all, as a child Charlotte Bronte wrote (essentially) fanfiction, stories she and her siblings created about a set of toy soldiers of her brother’s. But then she wrote write Jane Eyre. McWeeny, towards the end of his article, says that maybe the Age of Invention will follow the Age of Fanfiction, but that it will require us all to get a little comfortable with being uncomfortable. I hope that’s true. In the meantime, I’ll try to be less weirdly closeted about being fannish. And maybe  someday set I’ll aside these complicated, stupid feelings about fanfiction to finish that story, even if no one ever sees it, just to say I finished. And then maybe, I can move on to something new.


*SQUEEEEEEEEEEE. Which, you know, goes against the tone of this article but WHATEVER IT IS GONNA BE GOOD yes I am 12.
**I used this exact example in the article. This. Exact. One. It was really, really lazy.

One Comment leave one →
  1. Benjie permalink
    January 4, 2012 4:59 pm

    I think a lot of it has to do with the convenience of acquiring past media, whether through Netflix, Hulu, TiVo, etc. Older generations had to wait until something came on TV or Theaters again. So referencing earlier stuff is easy and profitable because nostalgia is usually a positive emotion for people.

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