Jane Haddam’s WordPress weblog

Fan Fiction

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John asks if it’s possible for someone to make science a religion, and of course it is–it’s even more possible for someone to take science on faith, like the guy on one of the Internet forums I contribute to on and off who, after several days of  declaring anyone who took intelligent design seriously to be “stupid” (and several years of declaring everybody who took religion to seriously to be stupid), suddenly said that he didn’t actually understand how evolution worked, but that was different, because that was science.

But science by definition–the search for natural explanations for natural phenomena–is not faith-based.  It requires material evidence, and usually direct evidence, to be valid.

But that said, let’s turn to another issue, one that isn’t often encountered in Protestant denominations, at least as part of religion.  I do know of secular instances of what I’m about to talk about, though, like the story of George  Washington and the Cherry Tree, so it isn’t something you have to be Catholic to run into.

There’s a traditional Irish Christmas carol usually referred to as the Cherry  Tree Carol that goes like this:  Mary, pregnant with  Jesus, sits down ounder a cherry tree.  It’s been a long, hot day.  She’s had a lot of traveling to do, and other work, and she’s exhausted.  She looks up and sees that the tree is full of fruit, and she desperately wants a few cherries, but she’s too exhausted to get up and get one for herself.  Then, from within her womb, Christ commands the tree, and the fruit falls into her lap.

Now, there was a point in the nineteenth century when the Church hierarchy in Ireland had a fit about this carol.  The story was not true, it had no place in scripture or tradition, and therefore had to be heretical.

They calmed down after a while, which was a good thing, because I doubt if anybody had ever considered the story to be true in the sense of a factual account of events that had really happened.

It was nearly infinitely true theologically, though, as an illustration of the dual nature of Christ as always and eternally true God and true Man.  If Christ is alwas and eternally both true God and True Man, then he is so in the womb as well as anywhere else, and as capable of commanding creation.

There’s a lot of this sort of thing in the early Christian tradition, as there is in the tradition of any narrative which comes to serve as an overarching framework for a good many people.  When it’s written about Star Trek or Harry Potter, we call it fan fiction.  What it is is an attempt by adherents–let’s not call them fans, for the moment–to put themselves into the story and to make the story itself clearer and more fully understood.

I  think that any narrative that has the potential to become the overarching framework for a culture is going to have a lot of fan fiction, and that, no matter how hard everybody tries, some of that fan fiction will end up being considered canonical.

What’s more, once that fan fiction becomes canonical, it becomes nearly impossible for the experts, or the hierarchy, or the guys who hold the copyrights, to convince the adherents that it is not.

Lymaree says Bill’s grandmother’s relationship to St. Anthony was a kind of bargaining, but it wasn’t, really.  Bill’s grandmother didn’t worship St.  Anthony.   She didn’t think St.  Anthony was better or stronger or more powerful than she was.  She didn’t supplicate him. 

She treated him, instead, the way she’d have treated one of her brothers or her nephews, a regular, ordinary guy around the house, her equal or inferior, not her better.  When she needed something found and he didn’t find it, she reacted just the way she would have reacted if one of her sons had failed to do his chores.

There was no bargaining about it.  She expected St. Anthony to do as he was told, for the same reason she expected her children to.

I think that this sort of relationship with figures in the narrative is a form of fan fiction, too, just not structured and consciously executed fan fiction.   There’s a lot of it in traditional Catholic societies, and a fair amount in Orthodox ones, and the phenomenon was a staple of life in the Middle Ages. 

It’s also fairly apparent in the big fan societies that exist now, in spite of the fact that we’re all close enough to the origination of the narratives so that nobody at least outwardly admits to thinking that they’re not fiction. Not only Star Trek, Star Wars, and Harry Potter, but the various vampire narratives have large organized groups of people writing fan fiction and role playing relationships in their spare time.

And sometimes not so spare time.

So I want to throw in one more possibility, one more thing I think it takes for a narrative to become the framework for a culture:  the narrative in question must inspire active participation in itself.

I don’t mean that the narrative must inspire people to go out and do things it commands–like feeding the hungry and clothing the naked–although it has to do that, too.

I mean that a successful narrative must generate in people the inspiration and foundation to continue to story on their own.

I am really, really putting this badly.

I think what I’m trying to say is this:  there’s a tendency to look down on fan fiction and on the people who write it as pathetic losers who need to get a life. 

I think instead that the existence of fan fiction–and of informal fan relationships like Bill’s grandmother to St. Anthony–is an important indication of whether a narrative can successful function as the franework for an entire culture, never mind an entire civilization.

And that is why I think Marxism failed as a narrative, why I think the general run of “Movement” narratives will fail as well–because at the best they’re only skeletal narratives, there are no people in them.

And there’s no fan fiction.

Written by janeh

August 19th, 2009 at 8:06 am

Posted in Uncategorized

4 Responses to 'Fan Fiction'

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  1. I’ve sometimes thought some Catholics treat the saints as though they are neighbours. It’s even easier to ask St. Anthony for a prayer or a bit of help than to ask Mrs. Smith next door, even though St. Anthony might be expected to be more effective with both, what with his extremely well-established reputation for sanctity and effectiveness. The fact that he’s been dead a long time is irrelevant. Some people do bargain with saints, and with God and even with doctors who have just given them bad news, but that’s not the only way they interact with them.

    I think that people spontaneously developing stories around a narrative is a sign of its popularity, certainly. The basic narrative has to come first, though.


    19 Aug 09 at 11:53 am

  2. I meant to say this last week and didn’t get around to it. But I recorded and watched “Trekkies 2” off TV, and found it interesting in ways that resonate with Jane’s posts of a common narrative.

    “Trekkies”, the first movie, was funny in ways that this second film is not. The adolescent boys living in their basements and drawing minutely detailed floor plans of the Enterprise, and getting excited because a girl showed up this year at the convention…it was a hoot.

    But now, 15 years later, those boys are grown up. Some of them have actually spoken to girls, others gone so far as to marry them. The Trek fan base is adult-to-middle-aged with children of their own.

    And the Trek fan organizations don’t just talk Trek all the time. They actively work to bring the values of community and humanity expressed in the original series to the present world. Without the scenery chewing of Capt. Kirk, of course, but these people are really active in charity work and in promoting tolerance. They walk the walk, in other words. Except for the Klingons. They’re still crabby.

    They have their narrative in place, and they’re working to extend it to others and bring in as many as they can by living the example.

    Anyway, if anyone is interested, maybe your local cable system will reshow Trekkies 2 sometime soon.


    19 Aug 09 at 2:00 pm

  3. I’ve read and enjoyed some fan fiction, and some of the franchise novels which are very close to it, and I agree with the basic point about a strong story drawing people in. But I’m not sure I understand the Marxist/Movement exclusion.
    There has been, it seems to me, a huge body of song, film and text which places people–some real, some fiction and some effectively reworked–into Marxist or Movement narratives. (Of course, not a lot of it is on my shelves, but still..) Joe Hill, Sacco and Vanzetti, Norma Rae of the movie–these are all real people reworked by the hagiographers to fit the narrative. I’ve seen accounts of Benjamin Banneker right to the edge of fiction, and “memoirs” of a black soldier at New Orleans which went well past that line. (Yes, there were battalions of black soldiers serving under Andrew Jackson. No, the popular “memoirist” in school readings wasn’t one of them.) The Soviets had folk heroes from Stakhonov and the child informer whose name escapes me on down. I’d love to do down both Marxism and the Movement, but to the degree Marxism has failed and the Movement hopefully failing, I don’t think it was the result of an absence of human figures. I think the fiction ended when the narrative ceased to inspire.


    19 Aug 09 at 5:01 pm

  4. Robert, I think you have a good point. The Marxists in particular did a lot of art supporting their narrative – not just literature, but painting and sculpture as well. Some of the environmentalists are good at it. Look at the anti-sealing stuff and other protests. I can’t bear to read much of it, but there is a tendency to write heroic epics online about those idiots who run around in little boats on the high seas, risking not only their own but others’ lives.

    I don’t think you can have a narrative strong enough to build a society on without these kinds of stories, even if the stories themselves don’t indicate that the narrative will last (as in the Marxist case). I think we lost a lot when we stopped reading our children nicely sanitized versions of our heros’ lives. There’s time enough later for them to realize that even the greatest heroes have warts; reading and being told or read these stories in childhood teaches them their national myth and the kinds of behaviour their culture considers admirable or even heroic.


    20 Aug 09 at 6:16 am

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