How Fanfiction Makes Us Pooran essay by cupidsbow
"How fanfiction makes us poor" is a provocative title, isn't it? You might well be feeling a knee-jerk frisson of anger in response, which is pretty much the effect I was aiming for. Not because I want to start some huge wank-war about the commercialization of fanfiction, but because I've recently been reading a lot of feminist theory, and frankly it's felt kind of like being kicked in the head. Hard. As I want to discuss some of those reactions--why I had them, how they apply to me as a fan-writer and as a woman, how they might apply in a larger sense to the fanfiction community--I thought sharing something of that unsettling knee-jerk feeling would be a good place to start.
Before getting on to my main topic of discussion, I want to share a bit of background on how I began this particular journey. Whenever I start a major new writing project, I often grab onto a new topic and devour it. This time around, the topic I've fallen into is feminism, and it's been a particularly thinky experience.
This essay is the first of a series I intend to write in response to the various books and articles I've been reading. These essays are not meant to be definitive statements about the topics under discussion, but rather an invitation for you to join me in thinking about the fannish experience, and what it is to be women who write. I don't feel I've come to grips with all the implications raised by these feminist theorists yet, so I'm interested in hearing your stories and opinions, and I hope you'll also share recommendations for related reading (especially if it's online).
Feminism and Fanfiction
The reason the title of this essay includes a reference to poverty is because I have a lot of issues with capitalism as it's currently practiced in the West, and especially with the way blame is directed at individuals for being poor. One of the things I've always loved about fanfiction is that it's largely free of the most obnoxious aspects of capitalist culture. However, due to both a recent conversation with a friend who works in publishing, and the feminist reading I've been doing, I've been forced to re-evaluate. In particular, I've felt compelled to ask: is the non-capitalist aspect of fanfiction actually a method of silencing the artistic voices of women? And does it take away what should be legitimate opportunities for us to earn an income from what we create?
Before I attempt to answer those questions, I need to give you some context for why I think they are worth considering.
The book that first sparked my interest in this topic was How to Suppress Women's Writing by Joanna Russ. It is an amazing book, which I highly recommend; that said, reading it filled me with rage. I can't express to you how angry it made me. My anger came from the recognition of misogyny where I hadn't realised it existed before. Feminism has won a lot of battles, so I've been privileged to rarely encounter direct, deliberate or malicious misogyny. It has happened, of course. For instance when I tried to take out home contents insurance for myself, and included my partner on the paperwork because we shared living space and therefore some goods in common, the institution insisted on putting his name down as the primary contact, even though he wasn't paying and had nothing to do with it! (Needless to say, I didn't complete the transaction.) But those kinds of examples have been rare; exceptions have stood out starkly because they are rare.
What Russ's books showed me, though, were the invisible ways in which misogyny more commonly works in Western culture--the non-deliberate, non-malicious sexism built into many of our organisational systems. These are practices that don't overtly seem to be anti-women because they are just the way things are done, but scratch the surface and the result of those practices is that women are seriously disadvantaged. I had understood, theoretically, about this aspect of sexism, but was hard pressed to point out many examples, as I was encultured to see those practices as "normal" just as much as everyone else. And then I read Russ's examples... and felt utterly kicked in the head! Although she was writing from the perspective of being part of university/intellectual life in the 1970s, most of her examples were things that had happened to me or someone I know.
I won't belabour the point of how deeply this affected me, or how my view of myself as a writer changed in response. Instead, I'll give a brief overview of Russ's main points, and then offer my own thoughts on their relevance to fanfiction fandom.
How to Suppress Women's Writing by Joanna Russ
While you're reading my summary, keep in mind that Russ is taking a broad view, looking at the ways in which women's writing has been made invisible over the past four hundred or so years. Not all of her points are relevant to the post-modern workforce, but I've encountered a surprising number of the more subtle variations over the last twenty years. My asides are given within [square brackets], the rest is all direct paraphrase and summary.
[This is perhaps the driest chapter in what is otherwise a riveting book, possibly because it's the stuff I've covered a million times before.] Russ points out that prior to the last few centuries in the West, there have been formal prohibitions against writing for woman and people of colour, such as lack of access to school-based education and banning of their writing. But even when there weren't formal prohibitions, there were (and still are) often a wide variety of informal prohibitions, including poverty (ie. lack of time/writing materials, even for women of the supposedly leisured classes who were still often primary child-care workers, housekeepers, or just without independent means), lack of education and/or books, lack of access to printing presses and distribution, not being paid for writing, being ignored by the academy and intelligentsia, active vilification as "blue-stockings," "lesbians," "loose women," or any of the derogatory labels for non-white peoples, and so on. At a more insidious and subtle level [which has been very common in my experience] women are just not taken seriously when they say they want to be artists (because, of course, all women end up married and mothers anyway, so anything they do before then is a waste of time).
- Bad Faith.
If the "wrong" people overcome the prohibitions and manage to write, the work is often made to vanish, usually through the ordinary, polite workings of class privilege. The widespread blindness to the work is based on illogical assumptions that are accepted as reasonable and never questioned. In fact, questioning the silence is considered rude and boorish, and if someone is angry enough to try, everyone politely turns away and pretends it didn't happen. [This kind of thinking works something like this: There are no great women writers, because that's what the textbooks say. So there can't be any, right? Because all those textbooks wouldn't lie! I don't know how the editors choose the examples of great work they include, but they would have a logical method behind it and they would have read really widely. Maybe one or two would be biased, but not all of them. So it has to be true. Yeah, sure, it seems a bit odd that I know lots of women who are bright and competent, but none of them are writers, so it must just be something women can't do very well. I won't bother to check the facts; it would take a lot of research and I don't have time. And it would be a waste of time anyway because all those textbooks wouldn't lie!]
- Denial of Agency.
She didn't really write it. Her husband did. Or her brother. Or her "inner man". Or the book wrote itself. Or, well, maybe she wrote it, but she's more than a woman, she's so far above other women she can't be classed with them!
- Pollution of Agency.
Okay, she wrote it, but she totally shouldn't have! A woman doesn't know enough about life to write about it well, unless she's a slut. She doesn't know enough about life, so she writes about irrelevant things like menstruation or rape or childbirth--"confessional" stories. Sure she wrote it, but she's such a bitch/so pretty you can't take her work seriously. Only abnormal women write books; look at how many of them commit suicide/go mad/can't find a husband.
- The Double Standard of Content.
This is when certain topics are considered more important than others, based on an idea of how "universal" they are, and therefore art about them is innately more valuable. But this idea of the universal is skewed to what is part of the "public" or "male" sphere of experience. For instance, sport is more important than buying clothes [unless it's high fashion, perhaps]; business is more important than housework; war is more important than bedroom politics; male suffering is more important than female suffering. The double standard also means that books can be misread due to assumptions about the author, so for instance, before Wuthering Heights was known to be written by a woman, it was considered by critics to be about the nature of evil, and afterwards, it was considered a romance.
[Pollution of Agency and the Double Standard of Content are clearly aspects related to the general contempt in which fanfiction is held by the wider writing community--it's just porn; it's all about men doing boring domestic stuff; they aren't even men, they're written like fourteen year old girls; only crazy, obsessive stalkers write that stuff; it's all so derivative and unoriginal, such a waste of talent.]
- False Categorizing.
This is when works or authors are belittled by assigning them to the wrong category, or arranging categories so that all the "wrong" people don't fit the prestigious ones. Many female artists, for instance, are recorded in histories as wives, sisters, mothers of a great artist instead of artists in their own right (which also makes invisible their influence over the "great" one), and their work is also commonly attributed to the male artist they are associated with (Mendelssohn's sister's songs, for instance). Another way false categorizing can work is when women's art is measured by different criteria, eg: male actors in terms of their virtuosity, female actors in terms of their sex appeal (or in terms of sexual stereotypes, like The Whore, The Spinster, and so on). Assigning work/writers to the wrong genre is another practice, eg: listing all art by women in the "Women's Studies" section of a catalogue rather than side-by-side with the male impressionists, landscape painters, etc. In other words, even if she created it, it's not really art, it's something else of lesser value.
[I've also seen this happen in reverse. An academic friend told me once, with a straight face and no sense of irony, that a book couldn't be science fiction because it was good. It was by a man, Vonnegut if memory serves.]
When a work by the "wrong" person actually makes it into the canon of Literature or Serious Art, it is only because they are one of a kind who produced this one thing out of the blue. They have no other work of any value, and they have no social network of other "wrong" people who influenced or helped them. They are isolated freaks of one-off genius. So, for instance, Mary Shelley only ever wrote Frankenstein (shhh, don't mention the feminist novel The Last Man), and Charlotte Bronte's only work worth reading is Jane Eyre (shhh, don't mention the feminist novel Villette). Don't mention the hundreds of letters they wrote, including many to other authors. Don't mention the books they would have read, which have vanished from our libraries. [Such as the melodramatic Gothic novels written by Mrs Radcliffe, which my lecturers always assured me were terrible, but which I'm very curious about now, especially as writers such as Jane Austen would have been reading them!]
A further point Russ makes under this heading is that because successful women's writing is isolated from its influences, it is often accused of having a poor or informal style (not patriarchal and "objective" enough; the example given is the critical response to Virginia Woolf's essays). But modern feminist writing is often accused of the same thing, when the subjective style is actually part of the point being made, and part of a wider tradition of women's writing.
She wrote it, but there are very few of her. This is a fascinating chapter, as Russ examines a sample of textbooks to see how many women poets are represented in each. All the textbooks have a representation of about 5-9 percent women. That's disheartening, but not the interesting part. Once you look at the breakdown, there's a huge overlap in which male poets are represented in the 91-95 percent of all the different textbooks. So you'd expect the same women poets to crop up over and over too, right? Especially given that they have about the same representation in each book, and there are clearly so few of them. Wrong, wrong, so very wrong. That 5-9 percent is made up largely of different women poets in each textbook. But if there really aren't many excellent women writers... how can that be? [Are you feeling kicked in the head yet?]
- Lack of Models.
While it's clear that women don't write in a vacuum, the disappearance of so many "wrong" works from the mid- to long-term literary record means that each new generation of women artists has to find or make a new network of their own. There isn't an obvious starting place, because there are so few obviously successful women to take as models, especially if you are going by university curricula which still tend to use textbooks with skewed male/female ratios. Also, the lack of a visible tradition means that the achievements of women and people of colour can be written off as "intuition" and "fluke" rather than hard work and/or genius that grows out of a solid foundation of what has gone before.
[When I first read this section, I thought things must have changed; women are well represented in the publishing lists in the popular genres now; most faculties at universities have a high proportion of female students right up to post-grad level (although the staff gender split is still skewed toward men); and feminist theory is a mainstay of most cultural studies units. But then I thought about it a bit more, about who, in particular, my role models were when I decided to become a writer... and you know what? I didn't have a single female role model. Tim Winton, as a Western Australian writer just a bit older than me, probably sold me on the idea that I could do it too. And later, after I'd already made up my mind, I found Lois McMaster Bujold and Connie Willis (and later still, fanfiction writers like cesperanza, abundantlyqueer, and astolat), and their work spoke to me as few other writers' had before. But I often feel like I'm trying to push the ocean, because there's no one I can point to and say, "They directly led the way for me. I'm following in their wake." When I look around me now, to my shock and awe, I find there are other women there, pushing along behind and beside me. They weren't there when I started, but we have found each other.]
Perhaps the biggest stumbling block raised by the lack of a visible tradition is that it means any woman ambitious to be an artist must seemingly be filled with hubris. If she sets out intending to "succeed" where no other woman seemingly has, she must think "I'll be the first" and that is not an ambition that is easy to admit to.
[When I was a teenager, I confided to my best friend that I was going to be a "famous writer," and she told me to "get a more reasonable dream." The memory of that moment still makes me sad, and I told no one else of my dream for years and years.]
This is another fascinating chapter, which looks at the ways in which women have faced the silence and decided to write anyway. There have been many different strategies, starting with debating the terms in "women can't write" (therefore, I'm not a writer, I'm this other thing--a diarist, perhaps, which was Anais Nin's approach; or therefore I'm not a woman, I'm really a man trapped in a woman's body, or I'm not a woman because I don't have sex, or don't have children, or I'm more than a woman because of some special quality I have, etc etc). Another strategy which has proven productive is to choose a field that men don't want, and stake a claim so early and so well that your influence can't be denied. So Austen changed the face of the romance forever; so Pauline Kael became one of the great film critics before film was considered important; so Florence Nightingale changed the face of nursing. Even so, these women who manage to be there first and brilliantly are often then denigrated on grounds other than their work, or because their work is too angry, too feminist, too something else.
Russ finishes this chapter by saying that she has noticed a new response to the idea that "women can't write": groups of women uncomprehendingly saying, "What?" and then turning their backs in order to discuss more important issues.
[This is another feature that I think is central to fanfiction fandom. While some people do feel disenfranchised, as occasional essays on metafandom point out, fanfiction is a communal writing culture which encourages and expects women to write, and which is predominantly a female space. Fanfiction writers may conceive of what is being made in different ways (art, craft, fun, porn, and so on), but there is no question, at least within the bounds of the subculture, that we can write! That is quite a different expectation to that of the wider world, in my experience, for while many people like to say at parties that they've always fancied themselves as a writer, very few of them ever actually attempt to write fiction, or much of anything else. They speak as though they think it is easy--oh, the number of times I have been bored rigid by men who have told me they could write a book so much better than anything I could write--but they don't do it.]
This chapter discusses the impact of not having a visible female tradition on art in general. For a start, it means that many of the representations of women within art are deeply flawed, as they are based on stereotypes. It also means the hierarchy of art is skewed so that the "masculine" values are at the top, all others at the bottom, like so:
"high art" [means] man, mankind, the individual man, individuality, humans, humanity, the human figure, humanism, civilization, culture, the Greeks, the Romans, the English, Christianity, spiritual transcendence, religion, nature, true form, science, logic, creativity, action, war, virility, violence, brutality, dynamism, power, and greatness.
... "low art": Africans, Orientals, Persians, Slovaks, peasants, the lower classes, women, children, savages, pagans, sensuality, pleasure, decadence, chaos, anarchy, impotence, exotica, eroticism, artifice, tattoos, cosmetics, ornaments, decoration, carpets, weaving, patterns, domesticity, wallpaper, fabrics, and furniture. (p. 114-5 Russ quoting Valerie Jaudon and Joyce Kozloff)
Another consequence of the focus on a male value system, is that associations are made between things like size and quality (the number of pages in a book, for instance, affects how prestigious it is); hence short stories [again: fanfiction!] are not all that important compared to novels [War and Peace anyone? There's a reason John Sheppard, alpha male, is reading it]. And finally, Russ points out that the truly new and interestingly experimental can be completely missed, even by people who are looking for it, because they are so inculcated into expecting certain things that they don't recognise innovation when they see it, or don't go looking for it in the right places.
[I see strong parallels with fanfiction here too. I've discovered amazing techniques in fanfiction that I've seen nowhere else... yet. Fanfic is one of the coalfaces of literature, in my opinion, where exciting new experiments with language are taking place. Yet the single most common criticism I hear about fanfiction (from people who have only read one or two stories) is that it's derivative and badly written and offers nothing original. It's at moments like that I feel like my reality exists at right angles to everyone else's.]
Women always write in the vernacular. [How brilliant is that? ETA: A few people have commented on the use of "always" and it's my fault for not giving enough context here. In Russ's original context it's reported speech, and we do make those kinds of generalisations in speech.] Russ is saying that it's easy to miss what women's writing is really about, because it's not in the language of Literature; rather, it's in the language of everyday speech, and if you don't understand what people say in the street, in the kitchen, while yelling in the playground, the writing will seem thin and unreal, and it will be all too easy to misunderstand or misinterpret. But if you do know the language, it will seem more real than anything in the canon. This is the untapped potential strength of women's writing, and that of other minorities' writing too.
[Phew. This book is only about 140 pages long, but there's so much in it. I hope my summary has given some sense of Russ's argument and how well she makes it.]
How Fanfiction Makes Us Poor
If you remember, right back at the start of this essay, I posed a couple of questions: is the non-capitalist aspect of fanfiction actually a method of silencing the artistic voices of women? And does it take away what should be legitimate opportunities for us to earn an income from what we create?
I hope you are starting to see why I think these questions seem worth asking. There is no doubt in my mind that fanfiction offers an amazing network for women writers, and given the advantages of the internet, it would be almost impossible to make this writing disappear en masse as has so often happened to women's writing in the past.
That said, it's easy for people outside of fanfiction fandom to dismiss the whole thing on a number of grounds, most of them described by Russ: yes, she wrote it, but we don't really know who "she" is; yes, she wrote it, but she totally shouldn't have (only perverts/stalkers/sluts/thieves write it); yes, she wrote it, but it's not important (because it's not about high culture ideas, it's unpaid, it's vernacular, it's just porn, it's derivative, it's bad); yes, she wrote it and it's actually good, but it's a one-off fluke and it's not really fanfiction anyway (it's a homage, a pastiche, a post-modern experiment, it won the Pulitzer); yes, she went on to write successful original novels in spite of her fanfiction beginnings (but she's not like all the others who do it, and let's not talk about it anyway, because it opens us up to copyright violation lawsuits).
Depressing, isn't it? In real life I've heard variations on all of those, and they are very hard to combat, as people are sure these biases are "common sense".
Now that I'm really thinking about the issue of women's writing, I'm wondering if the ease with which people can dismiss fanfiction as "wrong" is something we should be considering. Do we really want to be part of a culture that endorses a silencing of women by keeping us in our places in the ghetto? Or is this beyond the purview of something we do for fun, as a hobby?
It seems to me that part of why fanfiction can so easily be written off is because we so carefully police it, keeping our work in the unpaid ghetto along with other women's crafts. Up until now, I've had no problems with the not-for-profit aspect, but in light of Russ's argument, I find I'm having to rethink that too. Not just because of the "silencing" issue, but because of the female poverty issue. A friend of mine who works in the publishing industry has two major objections to fanfiction: it's derivative and it keeps women poor. I think the "derivative" argument has been well answered within the fanfic community, so I won't rehash it here. But the "keeps women poor" comment made me pause. I didn't want to think it was a valid criticism... but the more I think about it, the more I suspect there might be something in it. Not a lot, mind you, because my friend also said there's no money in commercial publishing (except for the very few writers who have both talent and the luck to hit the zeitgeist at just the right moment). Then again, fanfiction's market isn't the commercial publishing market--fanfiction is part of the long-tail economy of the internet, so the same rules don't apply. And as we live in an age where women tend to earn less than men, and experience poverty more often than men in old age, this idea of doing work-for-free is not an irrelevant one.
So where does that leave me? I'm really not sure. I still think that the fanfiction community is the most amazing women's art culture I've ever experienced, and quite possibly the most amazing there has ever been, just in terms of sheer numbers and output. And perhaps that is enough; perhaps one of the foundation-stones of the fanfiction community is that it doesn't have to engage directly with capitalist imperatives, and messing with that ethos might unbalance everything. After all, can we really be expected to fight every feminist battle all at once: building an artistic community, and filling the female silences in canon as best we can (including related issues of gender/sexuality/race/class/health etc), and adding our writing to the record, and fighting for financial equality for our artistic work? It seems a lot to me; perhaps fighting on one or two fronts at a time is reasonable, and the next generation can worry about fighting for what's left over.
I do feel angry, though, that this amazing outpouring of female talent is written off as nothing but derivative porn written by a bunch of crackpots. It makes me want to punch things and scream at the world, "Are you all asleep, or just deliberately stupid?"
And I still pretty much feel like I've been kicked in the head.
ETA: Um. Wow. For those of you who don't know me, I have limited internet access, so I'm never going to be able to respond to all your comments. Please know, I'm reading everything, thinking about all the points you make, and I'm so grateful to be part of a community that thinks these topics are worth discussing. Thank you!
Daughter of ETA: I've posted a collation of responses, linking to other discussions triggered by this one.