Fan Fiction, Oral Narrative, and The Book

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. 

The Religion of Mystery Literature

The Religion Of Mystery Literature
By Derek Newman-Stille

Like many people, I have a distinct love of mystery stories. I like the act of figuring out who did the crime. I like following the clues. I like believing that I can solve crimes before the investigators do.

One thing that always frustrates me is the finality of a mystery tale, especially when it is on television. There is generally little ambiguity left, little debate about guilt or innocence. So often mysteries (especially when they are tied to a police procedural show) are about reifying the idea that police always catch their criminal and that they are always right. This moral absolutism has always bothered me, as has the lack of questions about guilt or innocence.

One of the ways that mysteries tie up moral ambiguities is through the confession. What is odd is that actual murderers, thieves and other criminals rarely admit to their crimes unless they have worked out a deal with the prosecution for a reduced sentence because they admit to the crime.

Yet, the vast majority of mystery narratives (especially on television) have the killer confess to their crimes and admit guilt. Frequently, mystery narratives on television don’t even bother to wrap up the story, ending right at the point of confession. This highlights the importance of the confession narrative to mystery narratives by considering this the penultimate moment and the ending of the story.

So why are confessions so important to mystery narratives?

I made a connection when watching the television series Father Brown, a tale about a priest who solves crimes in his spare time. As I was watching, I noticed that Father Brown always sought to get a confession from the criminal, linking the confession of crimes to the confessions of the confessional. It occurred to me that this speaks beyond Father Brown and that there was a tint of Judeo-Christian moralizing in many mystery narratives.

Like religions, mystery narratives frequently portray a simple moral system: good/bad. Like religion, mystery narratives provide us with an image of punishment for crime/sin. Like religion, mystery narratives tend to focus on the confession as a key moment in the guilty person’s life.

I started to wonder – have we been primed to like aspects of mystery narratives because of centuries of Judeo-Christian influence on idea of crime? Do we write our mystery narratives along these lines because of the weight of Judeo-Christian ideologies in our society?

Since Judeo-Christian texts are treated as so important in our society, we often replicate aspects of those religious texts as ways of understanding the world even if we don’t prescribe to those religious beliefs. The tremendous impact of Judeo-Christian texts on other texts in our society mean that they often filter through into texts that are not related to religion.

So what is it that we like about mystery tales? What speaks to us about them? Is it the fact that they provide a tidy, easy moralism? Is it the fact that they present us with a world where crime is stopped? Is it the fact that criminals are punished? Or is it the power of the confession that gives us a sense that people can admit guilt and be rehabilitated or redeemed?

Although there are more complex mystery narratives out there and I have read them, there is something about simple mystery stories that appeals to me like Father BrownMurder She Wrote, and Sherlock Holmes.

* As a disclaimer, I am writing about this narrative connection to Judeo-Christian beliefs as someone who is not part of those belief systems,

Canada Day Complexities and Questioning the 150

By Derek Newman-Stille

Art by “Chippewar”

Like many marginalized Canadians, Canada Day can evoke some complicated feelings. We are often very aware of the oppressions that have been carried out in the name of “Canada”: residential schools for aboriginal people, asylums that perpetuated the torture of people with disabilities, the Pink scare, bathhouse raids, and other attacks on queer Canadians, the razing of Africville and so many other acts of violence that seek to position white, straight, able-bodied, Anglophone Canadians as the only “true” Canadians. 

Canada 150 has been constructed as a celebration of Canadian history, and yet, in the nation’s attempt to construct itself as a country of justice and benevolence, it has erased large parts of its past, trying to make itself seem as though it is a country of constant justice, rather than a country that needs to acknowledge that it has carried our horrible abuses of people in the past and continues to do so. Even the title “Canada 150” carries a problematic assumption, erasing the thousands of years of aboriginal presence on this landscape in trying to make it seem as though Canada was born from nothing 150 years ago. Canada’s acts 150 years ago were a theft of land, an oppression of people who have lived on this landscape and who have continued to be robbed of land and have been oppressed for the length of those 150 years. 

Canada has supported arts for its 150, but only if those arts celebrate the message that it is trying to evoke, and the arts council positions artists within its “cultural mosaic”, but only if one fits into the mosaic in the right way, only if one performs identity the way that the arts council wants to see. 

As writers, researchers, and fans of speculative fiction, we have an opportunity to ask big questions (the speculative part means being inquisitive). We can ask these questions of our past through historical fiction, inviting questions about what could have happened in Canadian history if things had gone differently and invite readers to learn about Canadian history beyond the canonical history we are often taught in our schools (the sanitized version that constructs this nation as heroic). We can invite questions about where we are going from here, ask questions of our future, and interrogate possibilities and alternatives that we are told are impossible or improbable. With our creative energy we can invite those impossibilities to the table and see how they play out. We can write dystopian fiction that invites critical questions about how things can go wrong if we continue on our current path. We can write utopian fiction that imagines a radically new nation of justice and inclusion. We can write horror that showcases the horrors that constantly take place behind closed doors in our nation, imagine fantasies where Canada can be transformed through a different relationship to our environment, superhero fiction that doesn’t end up just being nationalistic tripe, and science fiction that imagines different ways of understanding the sciences that we use to justify our actions. 

Speculative Fiction, like all fiction, is an act of imagination, and, as such, it is about the potentials that we can dream up. It is a genre of our imagination, our thoughts, our perspectives, our aspirations, our anxieties, our fears, our dreams and our nightmares. It is a genre of ideas, and we need to remember that ideas are powerful, transformative, and, yes, dangerous. A nation is a boundary – one that is placed on geographies and people and that uses techniques to try to bind those disparate people and geographies together. But we aren’t defined by our boundaries. Canada’s boundaries have separated people, sought to erase aboriginal territories and nations, and the process of drawing that boundary was as much about exclusions as it was about inclusions. It is up to us to redraw boundaries, or, better yet, to imagine beyond boundaries and conceive of new types of definitions and new ways of understanding ourselves and the places we access. We need to remember our history, and that means all parts of it, including (or possibly especially) the ugly parts of it. We need to question the way that borders have been drawn around what is appropriate Canadian history and what is not. We need to invite questions of our government when it tells us that it has given people enough and as it why, ask it to give access to fresh water to aboriginal people, ask it to make spaces actually accessible for disabled people, ask it to stop pathologising queer people and trying to portray only one type of queer person (normally the most normative behaving) and actually open things up for areas of radical expression and radical inclusion. 

We can imagine new possibilities in our arts and our critiques and we have a responsibility to imagine better.
To find out more about the art by Chippewar above, visit http://www.chippewar.com/product/free-150-years-of-colonization 

On the Power of Language

Words have power.

There is a reason why in fantasy narratives (and in many actual cultures), words are believed to have the ability to shape and change the world – words can become spells. Yet, we, as authors, already know this. They shape the worlds we create in our heads, those realms of the imagination that can have the power to shape the minds of others. 

Words are in the perpetual act of becoming.

We add meaning to words as we speak them, as we use them. Words shift and change and take on new contexts and associations. They grow. Words are not flat, stable things, but rather they are chimerical, transformative creatures, changing over time and in new contexts. Words are perpetually on the cusp of becoming something, and that process of becoming is shaped by they history and experience (just like a character).

Words are acts as well, evocations to that history, that chimerical process that shaped them. When we use words, we call up the ghosts of their past and apply them to new settings, to new ideas, and they absorb and consume these new ideas. Yet words are also things that are felt, that have bodily resonance – when we speak them, our mouths shape them, resonate with them; when we sign them (for sign language users), our bodies move with them, shaping them through our dance; even when we read them, we shape the words with our eyes. 

One of the activities that I do with my writing students is to introduce them to words that they aren’t familiar with, words that are new to them, and then invite them to explore the resonance of words in their bodies, examine how the words make them feel, what they are associated with in their minds. I use English words that are no longer used, words from other languages that don’t have adequate English translations, and ASL signed words to get them to feel words in different ways and to see the narratives that can come from word play. I then ask them to look at English words in a way that defamiliarizes them, looking at their sounds, their interplay, and the feel of them. 

Words become stories.

My writing students quickly discover that there are whole stories within words and that stories can spring from a particular word. Certain words can be touchstones for a character, aptly describing them in a single utterance. Certain words can be environmental, shaping a setting by their resonance with place. Certain words can contain an entire narrative because words have entire worlds inside of them. 

I frequently ask students to explore how words can create a character, looking at the meaning in a word and how it shapes a personality, a thought pattern, or way of being. 

Words have the power to shape the way we think – language patterns shape our process of thinking and the way we codify information. Words can be played with to inspire new ways of thinking, new ways of viewing and understanding the world around us. I often suggest that people play with words, play with their sounds and the ideas that they evoke in order to create narrative, to build new ideas. 

Consider the words that you use every day. Think about what ideas they embed in your consciousness, how they reflect you. Think about the way that the language you use shapes certain codes of thinking and understanding. Think about how words create you. 

When we write and when we read, words bounce around inside, bringing up images, patterns. Words change us. Consider the extra dimension a consideration of words brings to your reading process and think about how words can inspire a new way of writing. Consider the poetry of words and the magic that they evoke in us.

Speculating Fantasy

Speculating FantasyBy Derek Newman-Stille
Fantasy fiction is frequently viewed as an escapist form of fiction, one whose sole purpose is to provide a retreat from reality. Even people who advocate for the importance of fantasy tend to treat it as being important solely for its ability to provide an escape from reality. However, fantasy, like any genre fiction, is produced and created through the social lens of the author who writes it. Authors draw on the events, anxieties, uncertainties, ideas, developments, and issues of the world that they belong to when writing fantasy, converting these contemporary thoughts into symbolic form and writing them onto the canvas of a different world. 
Fantasy is unselfcritically defined in opposition to realism, not seeking to pretend to be based on the real world and therefore it has leeway for addressing issues that are “too real” for realist fiction by converting them into symbolic media, transforming them from issues into ideas. By defining itself as “untruth” – as fantasy – the genre does not lay claim to any single truth or single interpretation, but, instead presents a series of dream-like images. Dreams have symbolic power and blend images together in a way that requires the mind to be actively involved in translating them. 
Fantasy provides a lens for us to examine our own world in abstraction, slightly removed from reality. It is as much a journey as it is a genre, pulling the reader between the pages with an intensity that makes him/her come back to the everyday with a form of culture shock, suddenly viewing the “normal” anew and asking questions about the taken-for-granted qualities of the “real” world. 
In saying that fantasy has the power of reflection (though a distorted mirror) embedded into itself, I am not suggesting that fantasy is without problems. The genre has been based on extreme ethnocentrism, colonial ideologies, racism, sexism, heterosexism, and ableism. But, fantasy still contains that seed of change, that embedded potential that allows for engagement with mythic themes, fairy tale ideas, and the power of imaginative new possibilities. Fantasy could invite questions about the normative gaze, that socially embedded structure that reifies the world into Us and Them, Self and Other by providing a more distant Other, an Otherworldly set of encounters that invite questions about the Self, about what we consider the easy-to-define norms. 
Fantasy operates through the power of estrangement, inviting readers to accept unfamiliar universal rules (planes where magic exists alongside technology, where orcs and elves and goblins are possible, and where it is possible to confront the monsters that lurk in the shadows) and through this process of exploring the unfamiliar, fantasy has the ability to question the familiar, to invite questions about why we accept certain ‘rules’ as universal and instead open the world up to the question “what could be true?” and “what is possible?” 
We return from the adventure of fantasy with quest items that are really questions, speculations that invite us to wonder at the world we return to like our epic heroes/heroines, who once they return, discover that they have been permanently changed by their experience.

What Makes Fairy Tales So Brilliant?

What Makes Fairy Tales So Brilliant?

By Derek Newman-Stille

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Fairy tales always exist in multiplicity, in versions. There is never one TRUE version, but rather a fluid polyphonic group with multiple voices sharing different takes on the same tale. Fairy tales possess the magic of changeability. Born in oral narratives, they have the power to shift and change with each telling, adapting to new tellers and new audiences. They resist the idea that there can be only one truth and illustrate that there are always multiple truths, each with different messages that speak to different people.

 

Fairy tales are delightfully slippery and whenever people seek to pin them down, they adapt, change, and modify themselves to speak to a new generation and a new group of people.

 

We create our fairy tales to tell us about ourselves, to learn from our own imaginative words and explore our boundaries. Fairy tales let us walk out into the darkening woods of our own subconscious and see more of ourselves, the selves that we tell into existence when we sit around a camp fire.

 

In our fairy tales, we encounter strange beings – beasts and otherworldly entities and animals that act far too much like we do – but these encounters are always with ourselves, always about us colliding with murky mirror images of ourselves, and those mirror selves always have something to share, something to teach to us.

 

Our fairy tales shift from generation to generation to capture our new ideas, interests, perspectives, and our anxieties. But what fairy tales do we need for this age? What should we be telling ourselves to learn and change?

 

Now when we venture into the woods, it is not the wolves that Red Riding Hood should fear, but they should fear us because of the damage we have done to our animal neighbours. Tales of commoners who become princesses have reinforced the oppression of women and made sure that we don’t critique wealth because so many people believe they can go from commoner to royalty, so how do we change that tale? We have told tales of desiring youth and fearing old age, so how do we switch it so that we can desire our own aging? How do we tell tales of enchanted apples when they are sprayed with chemicals and waxed?

 

We are storied animals, composed by the stories we hear, the stories we tell, and, most importantly, the stories we tell ourselves to get us through each day.

It Doesn’t Have to be ‘The Way it is’

One of the phrases that frustrates me most is “it is what it is”. As a speculative fiction scholar and fan, when I hear these words, I hear the closing down of opportunities and the reifying of the status quo. “It is what it is” tells me that people are frustrated with the existing state of things, but are unwilling or feel unable to make changes. SF is the literature of change, a literature of new potentials and possibilities. That is not to say that it reguarly challenges the way things are because most SF doesn’t imagine new possibilities but only further entrenches existing ideas and the current structures of power, BUT it has the POTENTIAL to imagine changes, to think of new ways of understanding the world and new possibilities that challenge the world as it is. 

Today I listened to a talk by Alyx Dellamonica about environmentalism and SF in which she reminded listeners that one of the most dangerous things we can do is say “there’s nothing we can do”. She pointed out that people will often close down possibilities for imagining new ways of being in the world because we convince ourselves that substantive change is impossible and then we close down our own faculties for thinking of new ideas and new solutions to existing structures. 

I think this illustrates some of the issues I have long had about phrases like “it is what it is”. These phrases serve to support the way things currently are, serve to further entrench them. We tell ourselves that it is impossible to imagine new ideas and to think of fresh ways of understanding the world and so we support the status quo, we don’t challenge the existing authority structures that are unwelcome, unhealthy, and unsafe for so many people. 

I have the same reaction to “what can you do?”, which, despite starting with “what”, a question, has never been about asking a question, but rather providing a nihilistic rhetoric, a closing down of questioning and imagining new possibilities. I would ask us to take that question seriously, to reimagine it as an actual question. When asked “what can you do?” that we operate in the realm of the imaginative, the realm of potentials and we work on thinking about new ways of existing with and within our world. SF has this potential, but that doesn’t mean that this is exclusively the perview of SF authors. As a public, we too can SPECULATE. We can interrogate existing systems and ask what they exist for, whether new and better ideas can rise out of them, how we can substantively change, what posibilities exist, and what we can imagine our way out of and, perahps more importantly, what we can imagine ourselves into.

I am not saying that we should all walk around with utopic visions in our minds, particularly since, for many of us from disempowered groups, we so often have our utopic visions shattered, but that we keep pushing at the fringes of our society to advocate for positive changes. There is still a place for the apocalyptic in our imagination since it often allows us to articulate the way we see our worlds shaped for something other than us, a world that is fundamentally hostile to us (particularly if we are from disenfranchised groups), but it is important to remember that every apocalypse is about change, about a world in flux, and THAT has imaginative potential. Apocalypses are about recognizing that the world is no longer able to support an existing way of being and they call on us to imagine a new possibility, a new method of understanding a changing and changeable world. 
SF can be a way of critiquing the world as well as a way of imagining a new world, new possibilities, and a change to look at our own world from askance to see the things that we ignore, push aside, choose not to contemplate so that we can exist in a world of “it is what it is”. How do we use SF to imagine a world that ISN’T “what it is”?