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21 May, 2007

Narrative Discourse

So I'm watching some discussion here and there about fanfic provoked by this piece by Cory Doctorow.

Fanfic is one of those contentious subjects in some circles, really. The whole interplay of ownership of worlds, of what of the presentation of story is a shared matter and what rights the original creator should have to define the way those worlds are viewed and defined. The writer as divine creator, bringing forth universes from the sweat of their brow, is a compelling mythology to some -- but what happens once other petty godlings start interacting with those universes?

The thing to keep in mind -- the fanfic impulse is old, old, old. One of the frequent topics of conversation in my life of late has been how much of the Arthurian mythos is fanfic. Lancelot and the whole love triangle plotline? French fanfic. And those bits of fanfic become a mythological canon later on, shaping White's The Once and Future King for a straightforward Arthurian, and Walton's The King's Peace for an Arthurian that isn't so straightforward.

Homer? Mythology fanfic. Criticised in his time for being insufficiently respectful, too. Our surviving version of the Isis and Osiris myth? Greek fanfic, Plutarch I think, which would probably have kinda bothered some of the original myth-constructors with its changes to authorial intent.

Story exists as a dialogue between the storyteller and the people around them, the people interpreting the story. The words on the page, or recited, or whatever, aren't the whole of the story; there's a whole other chunk of it that comes with what weight that people bring to what they're hearing, what interpretations they have, the shapes of things. (And someone I know objected to having a subtitle to a poem removed, because it changed the story of the poem -- unqueering it. Context, context, context.)

When I write, I am, for the most part, not operating in a world of someone else's conception -- but at the same time, I am functioning in the vast multiverse of worlds perceived and realised, real and fictional, engaging in this giant discourse with the nature of story, the sort of story that matters, the shape of what it means to make story happen. I may not be telling you an Arthurian, but if I speak of proper rulership or nobility I will be operating in the context of a discourse shaped by memories of Arthur, generations upon generations of people talking about the Round Table and elaborating upon rulership and right action.

And there are stories that depend on that matrix, for better or for worse. Lancelot could have been written in some other structure, perhaps, but would he have had persistent story to him if he had? "There was this great king, who organised the best warriors to exemplify certain virtues -- they went on a quest for ... oh, fuck it, let's just tell a story about King Arthur."

This impulse isn't different when it's telling a story about Harry Potter or Luke Skywalker -- these are story matrices just like the ones which have been around longer. And people will engage with that matrix, with that world or those characters. (And I will admit I am far more comfortable with the impulse directed at the world than the characters, save when the characters are already collaborative work, but that's my own quirk.) And when people engage with the matrix, sometimes the result is more story.

Sometimes the matrix is a metamatrix -- the structure of multiple stories, past and present, in response to more than one thread, and when that happens, we don't call it fanfic. We may recognise threads of inspiration here and there, recognise them as falling into a sequence of development or originating a notion that other people's work explores later, but because it isn't set in Camelot or Gotham City, we call it "original".

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