Rocky Mountain Goyim Whiskey
Fanfiction is Not ‘Cultural Mythmaking’
One of the most continuously infuriating things about being a writer is that everyone in the universe earnestly believes they could be one as well, regardless of actual skill-level or, indeed, the possession of opposable digits.
The reason I bring this up- other than being British and therefore obliged by heritage to complain about everything all the time- is that I recently read someone describe fanfiction as “cultural mythmaking”. Naturally, this activated some primitive, animal part of my brain and I spent the following five minutes howling inarticulately at the sky in rage and despair before face-planting into my laptop’s keyboard. Then I looked up, saw the offending line and triggered the cycle again- howl; face-plant; look up and see line; rinse and repeat. This continued until the laptop ran out of batteries. If it had been plugged in at the time, I’d be there still, worrying the neighbours with my ghostly wailing (they’re more used to my wailing being a little too articulate and full of swears, so I imagine the change of pace would alarm them, if nothing else).
Anyway, back to the point. Being a writer is a pain in the arse. You can spend a year or more meticulously crafting a novel with a unique setting and set of characters, or a similar length of time researching and compiling a rich factual text. And then someone who’s written a five-page unpunctuated slash-fic screed about how Sherlock once fucked a pumpkin wanders up and demands to be treated with the same level of legitimacy. At which point I can either accept that my chosen vocation is never going to be taken seriously or I can buy a shotgun and start sweeping little embarrassments like that under the rug serial killer-stylee. I don’t know if you’re aware of this, but Option B is frowned on in most civilised societies.
Obviously, I didn’t extract all this fury from the simple comment that fanfic is “cultural mythmaking”- it’s just that that particular line (steeped in pretension as it is) is a perfectly encapsulated expression of the attitude I’ve come to despise in recent years. So let’s sit the fuck down, shut the fuck up and start dissecting it.
“Cultural mythmaking”… what does that term imply to you? It suggests a grandiosity of purpose; that the people involved in the endeavour are engaged reshaping (and even bettering) our collective cultural heritage and it implies that what they’re doing is deeply artistic in nature. Well, they’re not and it isn’t.
You see, folks, the main difference between actual writing and ‘fanfic’ is that actual writing consists of a multitude of different disciplines and failing in any one of them will result in either not getting published in the first place, your work being ignored once it’s out there, or you getting pilloried by any and every critic with an ounce of integrity. For one thing, in actual writing, you don’t just get to pick up characters that already exist and slot them into new settings and scenarios. Even if you take a pre-existing character (be it a real historical person or a literary figure), you have to reimaging them from the ground up, structuring a wholly new interpretation. And let me tell you, creating a cast of characters isn’t easy: you don’t just sit down and dream them up. For them to read well, you have to get inside their heads and work out what makes them tick on a fundamental level. It means dredging up notions, character traits, goals and desires lodged in your own brain that might be at odds with your real personality and subjecting them to the cold light of day. You mine yourself for raw data.
The same goes for setting: new fictional settings and real places alike have to be assessed anew and given a distinct feel and character that, again, can only come from mining yourself. Real writing involves spending a lot of time knee-deep in an internal quagmire of raw ideas, looking for usable pieces in the murk. Fanfic isn’t an expression of internal landscape in the same way. The skillsets involved aren’t comparable.
Luckily for me, I write schlock, by and large. I don’t write literature- just tacky horror and sci-fi novels. I never have to wade too deep into the quagmire: all the conceptual fuel I need for what I do floats near the surface. But I know writers- serious writers- who have actually gone into whatever abyssal plains lurk near the bottom of them and come back up with works of real significance (what can I say- I move in wordy circles). I get annoyed by the disregard for actual writing because… well, I’m easily annoyed, but I imagine proper writers- people with way more to contribute than me- must be constantly fucking livid about it… and they have every right to be.
And all of that’s before I get into the actual, technical disciplines which are required to be at a certain level. There’s the one’s you always have to use, including structure, pacing and phrasing (nobody will read a tediously-phrased book… or even an article). Then there’s the stuff you only need sometimes but you have to know how to do all the all time- everything from juxtaposition, subtle foreshadowing, pathos and bathos to knowing exactly when to break the tension with a cheap joke or a throw-away line. If I were to actually sit here and list all the aspects of writing as a discipline that you have to have down pat for both fiction and non-fiction (in which I rather pompously include this column), it would run to hundreds of pages.
Yet everybody thinks they can do it. Of course, technically, anyone can. Anyone can write a story or a poem or an article. But whether it means anything, whether it actually signifies something beyond a way to fill your evening if the telly breaks… that depends on skill, a level of commitment and a willingness to recognise that there’s room for improvement in your work from the get-go. Getting to a point where you can legitimately call yourself a writer can take years. Case in point: my first novel was utter drivel compared to what I produce nowadays (and, indeed, in general, really), because it is an actual discipline and that implies a learning curve.
The same people who described fanfic as cultural pissing mythmaking also described proper writers as an elitist group. Darn fucking straight we’re elitist. Most writers are lovely people who would never actually say that they’re better at one they do than yer average Joe Bumcrack in the street is ever likely to be. Well, I’m not lovely. I’m an arrogant bastard, so I’ll put it plainly. Of course we’re elitist: to be this good takes ages.
No, she never left her room. It was pretty sad, actually.
—Emily Dodds, 28, family friend
It changed her a lot. I mean, obviously. But it was so jarring to see her and remember how she used to be before it happened. Before her, I never really had to face dealing with someone in her situation, it was all very new and terrifying. We were all worried for her, and knowing there was nothing we could do only made it worse. Have you talked to her boyfriend yet?
—Veronica Lawrence, 23, friend
To tell you the truth, I have no idea how it happened, but it was sudden, I don’t remember any warning signs, any—I don’t think I’m comfortable talking about this. You could ask her boyfriend, but good luck finding him. I’m sorry I can’t give a proper, you know, story. She was a big fan of Whitman. She liked that one line, Dismiss whatever insults your soul. [sighs] I doubt she could have dismissed this, though.
—Edward Collins, 20, friend
We heard all kinds of crazy explanations. Stress-induced blindness, dementia, [scoffs] a cry for attention. I don’t know what happened to Liz. [voice cracks] And I don’t know where she is.
—[name removed by request], 47, aunt
She was the prettiest girl I’ve ever met. I knew all her tastes. She always bought camel reds, strawberry shortcakes, chex mix, and lots of coffee. I guess she didn’t like me. Whatever. I was just a dude behind a counter, she had no chance to get to know the real me. One day she walked into the store with some dude, I had no idea who he was till I put two and two together. [pause] Look, if you want my opinion, start grilling him. He must know something.
—Josh Thorne, 26, cashier at Cumberland Farms
She looked like she could literally chew you up and spit you out. She was wild, ardenthearted, it was beautiful to have someone like her in your life. What happened to her is like a drug. Most drugs don’t get you in a certain mood, what they do is expand, intensify the mood you’re already in. She always… she was real. Hanging out with her, you felt like everyone else you knew was made of cardboard. I only saw her once after… after the thing. Her aunt told me to be careful, but I could already hear banging upstairs, and rumors had been spreading already. I saw her through the keyhole. Her room was a complete mess, like there was nothing left to be trashed. I know she’d gone blind. Most people don’t believe me, but there was something very panicked in her movements, like she didn’t know where she was. It’s really weird that no one can find her now.
—Trevor Gibson, 23, friend
He’s right, she did go blind. She’d lost all her senses, actually, except her touch. I think so, anyway. I went into her room several times. I was careful, obviously, but, you know, it felt wrong not to visit. You can’t abandon a person like that. I didn’t want to abandon her. Everyone, every single person I knew told me to let go. I told them to go fuck themselves. One time I reached out and touched her. She turned around and jumped on me. She had a small frame but she was tough [smiles] and I had to hold her head back or she’d bite my face off. I pushed hard enough that I was able to kiss her neck for a second. It was cold. Then she started screaming. It was weird—not a rage kind of scream, it felt like grief, like a deep hollow sound of grief.
—No name given, 26, close friend
Hey, don’t ask me, I’ve no clue.
—Josh Thorne, 26, Cumberland Farms cashier
You did? What did he tell you? Look, there’s nothing I can tell you. It’s like she disappeared off the face of the earth one day. But hey, did you ask him?
—Edward Collins, 20, friend
No. No one has seen her since she left. The silence woke me up that night. I was so used to the screaming at that point, the sudden quiet felt wrong, dangerous. My husband went to check her room and… she was gone […] no, I really don’t think so. If she’d been capable of that, she would’ve left sooner. Months before.
—[name removed by request], 47, aunt
Don’t know. I have no idea.
—No name given, 26, close friend
Just talking about this kind of thing with another writer. He writes the full thing then goes through and rewrites the whole thing. I’ve heard that’s how you are supposed to do it. I’ve got to the point where I write type in every para, then copy it into a book. I rewrite it by hand several times, then the last rewrite is typing it back into the document.
That last touch of that woman soldier wanting to go with him and the Doctor rejects her only for being a soldier. I felt awful for her but it explained why so many of his companions are everyday young women. He’s a tin man who needs to borrow a heart; two tin men would not do.
"Actually, if you substitute apples and pencils for Jesus and hamsters, and aliens and big hats for von Mises and classical liberalism, I think you have Clint’s breakdown of economic theory."