Fan Fiction, Oral Narrative, and The Book
By Derek Newman-Stille
Last night, at a panel on fan fiction at Can Con in Ottawa, I began thinking about fan fiction as something connected to oral narrative and our human history of storytelling. I connected fan fiction to my past research in Classical Greek Literature and thought about the relationship of fan fiction to the multiplicity of versions of stories in classical myth, and also connected it to my current research in Fairy Tales, which also exist in versions and have a complicated relationship to the idea of the book (particularly since people like the Brothers Grimm took multiple versions of fairy tales and sought to book them down into single texts).
I want to start by thanking my fellow panelists Erin Rockfort, J.M. Frey, and Genevieve Hebert-Jodoin for engaging with me in a discussion around these ideas and for critically questioning them and exploring them with me. Their expertise and knowledge were incredible
The notion of fan fiction depends on the idea of having one singular text – a book – as the source for a story. It depends on the idea of art as property and depends on the notion of the author as the singular creator of a text. In the context of the wider world and the history of storytelling, this is actually a rare phenomenon and a distinctly modern, western phenomenon.
Storytelling comes from oral narrative, from telling tales out loud. These stories rarely exist in singularity. Stories are told again and again with variations and each storyteller modifies their story to adapt to their own voice, but they also adapt their story to their audience, responding to the particular people in their audience and particular events in a community. So a single storyteller’s tale is likely to shift in the telling and retelling. This is some of the magic of oral narrative – the ability for a story to adapt, be changeable, mutable, shifting to tell the story that the teller feels the community needs. As an example of this for modern Western readers, when you read a book to a child, generally you will adapt even a book so that the story fits with that child and their particular circumstances, so the character becomes “a ginger haired girl, just like you” and she faces bullying just like the child you are reading the story to. As we tell stories, we adapt and shape them to the purposes they need, to tell the stories children need to hear at a particular moment
This expresses the adaptability and flexibility of story itself, and expresses something intrinsic to storytelling – that each time a story is told, elements shift and new aspects to the story are brought to light while others disappear.
For most of our history as human beings, stories have existed as oral narrative, as tales told aloud, and actually, in the West, even though we frequently identify stories with the notion of a single-authored book and intellectual property, the vast amount of stories we encounter are actually still oral narrative. We call them gossip. We tell stories constantly about the people around us, unwittingly shifting and changing them in the retelling. Our memories change too in the retelling and our knowledge of the “truth” of a story will shift as we remember details differently.
So there is an intrinsic shiftability and malleability to stories. They aren’t static, but rather change. So, the notion of a single-authored propertarian story is something quite unusual. The book can be perceived as a stagnation of a story, trying to halt it at one particular moment and preserve one single telling.
Even texts like the Iliad and Odyssey, which are perceived as being canonical, are tales frozen at a particular moment and ascribed to the poet Homer. Yet, these tales existed as oral narrative, being told and retold and shifting with each telling. When the Iliad and Odyssey were written down, they still existed in multiple versions with multiple small differences. Even today, these texts exist in multiplicity because each translator provides a different version.
The nature of the book is contentious. It can be seen as something that stops the adaptability of a text, but even early books had different versions. When books were copied by hand, they shifted in the writing, with scribes often changing words, missing words, or substituting words. Once we have the invention of the printing press, there is a bit more consistency and sameness in versions of stories.
The printed book allows for propertary rights and a more intense ownership of a particular story, but there is still the human impulse to tell, retell, and adapt stories. We have a desire to see versions of texts, to make texts our own as readers and to retell them in ways that preserve that adaptability of storytelling. Fan fiction, to me, is an acknowledgement of the adaptability of text, the power of a text to exist in polyphony, and be subject to the mutability of oral narrative. So notions of the primacy of a single text are distinctly modern and western, and they attempt to halt a story from its adaptability, from something built into the act of storytelling itself.
Frequently, fan fiction is perceived as bing something distinctly modern, but it is something that is intrinsic to storytelling – adding to our stories as they are told and retold, adapting them to our particular cultural moment, our needs at the time of telling, and the particular audience we want to reach. Fan fiction is just another part of the living narrative that is characteristic of storytelling, and it allows for a text to shift, grow, and change.