There has been a recent spate of posts on Metafandom and elsewhere about whether or not academia–and academically inclined fans–should have a role in fandom. So far, it hasn’t even been a matter of how much of a role, or when academic analysis is appropriate, but a black-and-white, YES-or-NO debate such as is rarely seen in fandom.
I find the argument of those most vociferously in the NO camp to be a little disturbing.
Because what is an “academic” reading–which, based on the posts I’ve read, is being defined as detailed analysis of whether and why a story works–of fanworks if not simply one of many ways to approach a very broad and diverse topic?
Swatkat24 put it best: “I find the anti-aca/fen debates that make the rounds in fandom every now and then worrisome, and very opposed to that aspect of fannish culture I’ve come to cherish over the years: tolerance of other people’s weird obsessions.“
The argument against “acafen” (those fans who enjoy and engage in academic analysis and discourse about fanworks) seems to revolve primarily around the idea that to analyze a work too deeply ruins it. In K.A. Laity’s original post that spurred this current round of discussion, one commenter put it as, “Funny thing I’ve found– when you cut the living dog into pieces, it never acts the same afterwards, even if you put the pieces back where you found them.” Twistedchick drew a similar parallel with, “I have never liked dissections and vivisections” and goes on to write,
See, when you take all the living bits of a story apart, out of context, skin them and stake them out and dance around them while they’re drying, what you’ve got is something that you’ve killed, and it’s dead. It might make stew, but it’s not a story any more. You haven’t ‘controlled the narrative’, you’ve slaughtered it, and it’s attracting flies and smelling pretty bad. You can say you’ve got Einstein’s brain, in a jar on the shelf, and you can measure it and figure out what shade of pinkish-gray it is this week, but it’s not a living mind any more, is it?
These are pretty extreme reactions, I think, when one considers that under discussion is a single way to read and interpret literature. We are not, in fact, talking about cutting apart living, sentient beings. The argument against literary analysis in no way parallels the argument against vivisection. (Take it from one who has spent a good part of her life firmly in the camp making the latter argument.)
The above arguments fail to account for the fact that a story analyzed by one reader does not leave that story in shambles for subsequent readers. If one takes apart that hypothetical dog, then that dog can be wholly restored for no one. It’s not as though you can cut him to pieces and I can adopt him and take him home, healthy and whole, the next week.
Which gets to a second issue that is being discussed in this context. The comments on Twistedchick’s post reveal both hurt and anger about having work discussed in such a fashion without consent and her own opinions being disregarded because she wasn’t thought capable of understanding the discussion because she was not an academic.
With the latter, I have to empathize … but I don’t think that it’s the same question as to whether academic analysis is appropriate when applied to fandom or fanworks. Such experiences as Twistedchick describes don’t belong to academics. They belong to assholes.
Can academics be assholes? Sure.
Can non-academics be assholes? If ff.net proves one thing, it is that stupid people can be jerks too.
Telling someone that she is not intelligent enough to understand the discussion of a story that she crafted takes a galling amount of condescension. Providing someone with unasked-for critical analysis of a story is a completely different can of worms and not that much different than the ongoing discussion/debate about constructive criticism and whether or not it is polite or appropriate to critique a story where the author has not given his or her permission to do so. Publicly critiquing a story is even more of a touchy issue.
Why should the question be any different if it is an “acafan” talking down to me about my competency as an author or a barely literate commenter on ff.net who can nonetheless lecture me on the myriad complexities of eschatology in Tolkien’s world?
Personally, I’m inclined to write off both as socially inept and possessed of overinflated senses of self-importance and to seek constructive comments from those whom I trust to provide a kind of critique with which I am comfortable.
But the reality of publicly posting online is that, with it, one opens himself or herself to public comments and “use” of the material as inspiration, example, and so on. I touched on this in a previous post, The Many Faces of LiveJournal, about how some LiveJournal users want their public posts to remain available to a public readership … but to simultaneously inhabit some nebulous twilight realm as far as commentary and fair use of that material goes. My feelings on this remain mixed, to an extent, but I find myself leaning toward regarding this outlook as an example of wanting to have one’s cake and eat it too: If public authorship confers benefits that locked/limited or private authorships do not–such as an increased readership and level of discussion or positive attention from peers–then it seems a bit unfair to ignore the negatives that come with public authorship, such as negative attention or fair use of one’s words for purposes with which the author may not necessarily agree, as when one LJer discovered that her public LJ posts had been referenced in a published book. At the same time, I do understand that a nuanced understanding of commenting on and using another fan’s work–even when that work is public–has been not only tolerated but encouraged in fandom. So while I find myself raising my eyebrows at the writer who would publicly share a story and yet expect that story to remain off-limits for certain kinds of critique, then I nonetheless do understand from where such an attitude derives.
Rolanni brings up a related point about the appropriateness of academic study and discussion of “genre” fiction, particularly science fiction, also related to Laity’s original post. I think this is relevant to fan writings. “Genre fiction” has long been derided by many in the “literary fiction” arena; my writing program in university made its utter disdain for “genre” shamelessly explicit. But authors of both types of fiction have found common ground in their hatred of “fan fiction,” those derivative works that are subpar and escapist at best and theft at the Robin-Hobb extreme of the worst. It is a typical example of defining ourselves not by what we like but by what we hate and stomping down other people’s work to make our own stand taller.
Yet, despite the long loathing, both genre and fan fiction have found academics suddenly peering past thresholds they once wouldn’t be caught dead crossing. Rolanni writes, “Science Fiction has had an Inferiority Complex almost since its mass market birth, when it was viewed (by academics, my mom, high school English teachers, and other Right Thinking People) as being on the same intellectual level as porn, and was often displayed on the same spinners in the newstands,” and goes on to argue for the value of escapist fiction.
With which I would agree wholeheartedly.
But, again, I am puzzled by the assumption that a piece of writing must be one or the other–either worthy of analysis or simply “escapist”–and cannot exist as both to different people or even the same person. I read Ursula K. LeGuin’s The Left Hand of Darkness for pleasure and loved every minute of it. I didn’t attempt to analyze it or figure out what it means. Yet it is a science fiction novel that could definitely be analyzed and could also hold its own against many works of so-called “literary” fiction. Likewise, I was rivetted by the plot, characters, and world-building of Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake, not with trying to figure out what she was trying to say. She was definitely trying to say something, but it wasn’t why I read the book. Oh, and Margaret Atwood is definitely a “literary” author.
For that matter, are novels so easily dichotomized as “literary” or “genre”?
Part of the reason that I insist on using the annoying quotation marks each time I type those words is because I don’t believe in the pure existence of either form of fiction. Really, what separates “literary” from “genre”? When I inquired in one of my writing courses about how science fiction is defined, I was told that it takes place in a dystopian future and uses “formulas” of the genre, like unrealistically perfect protagonists. In this case, Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale (which is celebrated in literary circles) can be dismissed as “genre” because it takes place in the future (and that future is definitely dystopian)?
And the acceptable “literary” stories written by my classmates–which inevitably dealt with divorce or alcoholism or prematurely dead friends–no matter how bland the writing and tired the subject, were not formulaic?
The more I write and the more I study literature (and–full disclosure–I am not an academic: I have one Bachelor’s degree in psychology and am working on a second in English, and my money is made doing work related to neither for the government; I do, however, hope to earn advanced degrees in my studies someday), the more I balk at classifying literature as one or the other of anything. Literary, genre; serious, escapist; original, derivative … I think that every story falls somewhere on a continuum between these extremes (and where on this continuum will vary from reader to reader), and no story can be wholly one and none of the other.
So, my point is that while I won’t fault Rolanni for her pride in her “escapist genre fiction,” I think that attempting to define what this is is essentially pointless: It will vary from person to person. For example, plenty of people write off Tolkien as escapist, genre tripe. And yet plenty of people also see Tolkien as a serious author with Something to Say that is worth studying.
Therefore, excluding a work from study because it meets one individual’s classification of “escapist genre fiction” is just as pointless. I may think that your escapist genre fiction really and truly does have something to say.
But, later in Rolanni’s post, she goes on to say,
What seems not to be understood is that academics don’t study and write articles in order to Validate the object of their study. Academics study and write articles in order to Validate themselves. As more and more people become academics, they must look further and further afield for subjects, and lo! suddenly Science Fiction isn’t genre trash anymore; it’s a way to secure tenure.
Considering that she froze and eventually made invisible the comments to this post, I suspect that I’m not the only one who takes umbrage at this point.
Clearly, if I think your escapist genre fiction has something to say–or your fan fiction, for that matter–then if I wish to study it, then this has little to do with my own enjoyment as a reader or curiosity as a researcher as it does attempting to strike into new territory and being hailed as pioneer in my discipline, presumably with great personal gain (i.e., tenure). This sort of broad-sweeping ad hominem attack is not only untrue but terribly unfair.
And, here, I think the argument about academia and fandom comes full circle.
The heart of the debate really has nothing to do with ruining fiction by “dissecting” it or ignoring its escapist purposes to search for something deeper (which, apparently, does not exist, no way, no how). It has to do with an intense dislike of academia and academics and–perhaps beyond that–intellectualism or finding pleasure in analysis. Here is where I come back to my original point that this is a disturbing argument.
It is disturbing because, as Swatkat24 pointed out in the above-referenced quote, fandom is obsessively tolerant of all sorts of people and ideas. While it is generally accepted that everyone be permitted their preferences in what they do and don’t like to read, it is frowned upon in most fan communities to attempt to bar someone from writing what they wish, be it smut or slash or AU. Or academic “dissections” of stories. People are trusted to avoid what they don’t like. And fandom especially stresses the importance of critiquing stories and not authors. Attempting to exclude a person from participating in fandom as an author or a reviewer because of his or her sexual orientation, race, religion, marital status, or gender identity would cause an uproar.
So why are fans sitting idly by and allowing fans to be excluded based on their chosen careers, fields of study, and level of education?
If I stated that people without college degrees should refrain from commenting on stories because their comments are inevitably shallow, uninsightful, and useless, I would (rightfully) be derided because I am not judging a review but a reviewer, much as telling an author that “Young authors like you should wait until you have more life experience before trying to write love stories,” I am not critiquing the story but the writer, and we generally accept that this is irrelevant and wrong.
Here, I find a rather intriguing connection to real (read: outside of fandom) life, at least in the United States, where there is lately an ever-escalating debate on “intellectualism” that increasingly attempts to cast the opinions of those deemed as “intellectuals” as unwelcome or inferior to those of “ordinary folks.” As the current presidential campaign really got underway, I found myself baffled at how many people I heard scorning Barack Obama’s “intellectualism” as somehow making him unfit to serve as President of the United States. “Why so?” I often wanted to ask; it seemed to me that devoting one’s life to careful thought and reasoning and problem solving was an asset in a presidential candidate.
But, as I delved deeper into this debate, I found aspects of it striking … and remarkably similar to the “acafen” discussion going on in fandom. It seemed that many people proudly titling themselves “anti-intellectuals” often spoke of suffering hurt and condescension from those whom they considered intellectual. Slate magazine’s XX Factor blog had a discussion about this, and conservative blogger Melinda Henneberger wrote of how “I did work for an intellectual at one point—and I know this because he spoke of it constantly; in fact, he talked so much about his own heapin’ helpin’ of smarts that one wondered, as he would have said, how wide-ranging his great thoughts really were.” Rachael Larimore–also conservative–wrote that, “What makes people angry, and blood-thirsty, if we must go there, is when elites and intellectuals condescend to everyone else and belittle their views.”
Sounds familiar, doesn’t it?
And whether applied to politics or fandom, this view is troubling because it excludes people based on perceived intelligence or preferred way of interpreting information. It does not analyze the merit of what they have to say but judges that, whatever is said, it will be offensive simply because of who is saying it. Being an “academic” isn’t a guarantee of asshattery, nor do academics and intellectuals hold monopoly on being jerks.
I don’t believe that all authors need to encourage or even welcome an academic reading of their work. Just as intellectuals aren’t the only pains in politics, I’m sure we could all name certain kinds of review(er)s that we find annoying or detestable and would prefer not to receive. In some spaces–like on LiveJournal–an author can control this, screening or deleting comments that she or he finds contrary to her or his purpose in writing, and I would not protest that right. But I think that it is quite a leap–and a dangerous one–to say that a certain type of thinking or people who enjoy that type of thinking are wholly unwelcome in fandom or their preferences any less worthy than anyone else’s.