cupidsbow (cupidsbow) wrote,

Valuing the Work in Fanwork

I've been meaning to post about the Organization for Transformative Works for a while now, and given that the website launched this week and has generated a lot of discussion, today seems like a good day.

OTW launch
If you haven't been following the launch, you can find the latest news at otw_news, specifically: Website and mission updates, December 2007 Newsletter, vol. 1 and OTW mentioned on Zuckerman's blog and Boing Boing. There's interesting discussion in the comments as well.

Commentary in response:

Once you've read through all of that, you'll see that a big part of the response is related to the perceived worth, or worthlessness, of fanwork.

I've been thinking about why people outside of fandom seem to fundamentally misunderstand what fanwork is about, and why fans value it. It's puzzled me that people can't see at least the hypothetical value of it, partly because it seems so obvious to me; but also because the negative responses are clearly complex and intertwined with other debates, like copyright, free speech, capitalism, homophobia, and gender just for a start. That complexity makes it hard to untangle where the message goes so wrong when fans try to explain. Then, just today, as I was reading a post by cathexys, I remembered that I used to think exactly the same way as non-fans: that fanfiction was "trash" and "unoriginal" and about "silly" topics like gay romance, and generally not good enough to be valuable.

*boggles at my younger self*

So how on earth did I find myself here? As far from that starting point as it's possible to get?

Well, it's been a long and twisty journey.

When I first started reading fanfic, I felt ashamed of how hard and fast I fell in love with it. I couldn't understand why I found this stuff so brain-meltingly fascinating. That was the starting point of all the thinking and reading I've done, and in the process of finding an answer that made sense, I also found myself rejecting the main principles underpinning capitalism; more than just understanding myself, I re-made myself.

A huge part of that rejection of capitalist ideology was due to fanfiction fandom. I know it's kind of out of fashion now to say that fanfic is subversive -- people have pointed out that a lot of slash, for instance, really valorises the same old ideas of romantic love, with all of the mainstream control of bodies that entails; and that just adding gay sex, or any sex, to something isn't innately subversive. They are good points, and I agree with them.

I didn't always agree, though, as "taking emotional stories seriously" and "filling in the private gaps in public texts" were the kinds of things I got hung up on at first. Mostly, I think, because I hadn't seen feeling-centred or sexual stories celebrated so happily, without the baggage of shame, before I found slash. It felt subversive back then. Now I've been around the block a zillion times, and yeah, I can see all the old tropes of romance still in there, just with a bit of glitter over the top.

But the thing is, that's not what I think the subversion is anymore. I think the subversion actually exists in the nexus of product and practice, of fanworks and fan cultures. Fanfic fans (and likely other creators of fanworks, although I know their cultures less well, so I'm hesitant to make blanket statements) have a fundamentally different way of valuing fannish things than capitalist culture has of valuing everyday products and practices. That's why it took me so long to really get fanwork -- I had to cast off all the expectations of capitalism first.

In my experience, that's where a lot of the confusion comes from with non-fans -- they see all this effort, all the work that goes into fanwork, and they are so immersed in the invisible reality of capitalist thinking, that they honestly can't conceptualise that people might genuinely not give a shit about selling that work for money. They can't understand an economy of giving things away or sharing. They think it has to be lip-service, that there's a secret agenda, that people are delusional and naive if they think otherwise. And they are deeply, deeply threatened by the idea of someone stealing from them, because owning things is the ultimate value in capitalism -- even intangible things like ideas, which ironically only reach maximum value when shared. Under capitalism, supposedly the more you own, the richer you are, and rich people are the "winners" of life. The notion that sharing something could actually gain more wealth in the long run, especially if you don't measure wealth just in monetary terms, is a totally alien concept that does not hold any weight; not even if you give examples like Baen or talk about the Long Tail economy.

Our culture has become so homogenised with regards to capitalism, that people honestly cannot hear the voice of the counter-culture and what it's saying when it comes to non-monetary values.

To give an example of this kind of talking past each other: I had a very puzzling conversation about fanfic with a guy who is bright and engaged and a thinker. He said something along the lines of, "Ha! Did you see that hilarious wank? The one where a Harry Potter fanfic writer was upset because someone plagiarised her work? How ironic!" I could tell by the expression on his face that he expected me to laugh at it too, and I could not for the life of me figure out why. I knew he knew what plagiarism was, and more importantly, what it wasn't... so how was it funny? And then, a day or so later, it dawned on me that he was so invested in the idea of copyright and selling fiction that he just unproblematically saw all fanfiction as "stolen." To him, it just was stolen, because it has no monetary value of its own, and there is no other value it could have, except in any pale reflection it gets from the original source. Which meant that even though he knew the difference between plagiarism and, say, homage, he still conflated all fanfiction (stolen property) with plagiarism. He could see no other value to it, because to him, it has no other value, and it never can as long as it is worth no money.

How do you even start to address that chasm of misunderstanding about where the value is?

This, I'm sure, has always been true of the ideologies of counter-cultures which exist in conflict with the mainstream; fandom is no different in that regard. But what I think makes the chasm even harder to bridge is that from the outside, fandom looks like it is all about consuming -- because, in part, that's exactly what it is. Consumption is this great paradox that fans wrap their heads around without too many problems -- we have a gift economy, yes, but it is built around buying primary texts, tie-in merchandise, franchised goods and services. For the most part we don't even blink at negotiating these two ideologies; I mean, we live with multiple realities in our fanfiction every day, so believing a dozen contradictory things before eating our Star Wars Special Edition Cornflakes is what we're trained for. And it's only an issue on our side of the cultural divide when the occasional blip happens, and the two ideologies collide.

To the non-fandom side, however, it makes no sense at all. It looks like hypocrisy, I suspect, rather than living in a multiple-choice culture. Capitalism talks a good talk about supply and demand, but is too focused on the next big hit to really mean it: you can have any colour as long as it's black.

This is why I've come around to the idea that valuing something without a monetary price-tag is one of the most subversive everyday acts now possible in capitalist culture. Mainstream culture is focused on training us into unthinking obedience to the religion of consumption, combined with a money fetish -- this can be seen in everything from making sure our eyeballs take in ads (or we're "stealing" their paid time), to the ridiculous notion that we can somehow own an idea (George Orwell is laughing in his grave). It took me about three years to shrug those trappings off, so that I could really engage with fan culture -- I had bought in to all those ideas about originality and "making a living at art" and I was miserable because of it.

When pro-fanfic arguments are read through the capitalist filter, I'm pretty sure they come out as gobbledygook -- that's why fanfiction fandom is so often fundamentally misunderstood by anyone who hasn't engaged in some way with counter-culture. The easiest way to resolve the resulting conflict -- the seeming lack of coherent meaning in the pro-fanfic arguments -- is to assume we're crazy.

If being considered crazy by the mainstream is not true subversiveness, I don't know what is. But how ironic that the counter-culture that's most important for the Web 2.0 era is made up of geeks and nerds, rather than leather-jacket-wearing, motorbike-riding French philosophers. Of course no one can believe it's us; we don't look cool enough to be heroes and we speak in Star Trek quotes.

To return to the OTW -- one of the reasons I got involved with the organization is because I think the fannish way of valuing work is worth trying to communicate across the capitalist divide. That type of advocacy is one aspect of what the OTW is about, which is pretty clear already, as you can see from the responses I've linked to above.

I'm really proud of what we've achieved so far, and fascinated by the controversy and discussion already generated.

I'd kind of like a t-shirt soon, though; I need something to mark my counter-cultural cred, and I'm never going to ride a motorbike or speak French. :)

ETA: Talk about synchronicity. I've just stumbled across a couple pieces by Lawrence Lessig talking about many of these issues: Authors@Google: Lawrence Lessig and Required Reading: the next 10 years.
Tags: discussion, essay, fandom, otw
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