Something ‘clicked’ for me yesterday about the distance between reading and writing fiction. Or rather, about the distance between receiving and creating fiction (because the actual writing part takes effort, but that’s a whole other question). I think it’s minimal, more to the point, I think it’s always been minimal.I started off by thinking of character degradation in terms of Sir Kay in Arthurian legends. According to Wikipedia, the earliest written stories of Sir Cei come from Welsh legends, and predate Geoffrey of Monmouth (I’d heard that before). He was a young man when Arthur was crowned, and a cousin. He went to Arthur’s court and had the king trim his hair (it was a thing) then went on adventures with and for him until Arthur said something snarky, then he went on his way in a fit of pique.
That’s a long way from the step-brother who tried to claim Arthur’s sword for himself, isn’t it?
It was Chretien de Troys who began the path which turned Kay into the putz we all know and love today. Somewhere in there, he became Arthur’s seneschal (keeper of the purse). Yeah, what else is an author to do with a character he wants everyone to resent – make him the bean counter. Think about it, he immediately loses whatever ‘cool’ he had, because it’s now always his fault that the rest of the characters can’t have a huge party. Then you make him the first knight your new character defeats (in order to prove your knight has chops), and before you know it this hot shot hero is now the butt of every Arthurian joke.
Does this remind you of anything?
It’s what happens with centuries of fanfic. Stories told and retold, with the same characters who slowly morph into barely recognizable copies of themselves. Except with fanfic one recognizes the original work as ‘cannon’, and this protects the characters (at least somewhat) from the transformation.
The same thing happens with Shakespeare, sort of. When modern writers riff on Shakespeare plays they do a much more thorough job of ‘filing off the serial numbers’. West Side Story doesn’t claim to be Romeo and Juliet. Ten Things I Hate About You, if I recall correctly, directly alludes to The Taming of the Shrew even as it mirrors characters and situations. Shakespeare himself drew a great deal on folklore and legends to create his plays.
There are plenty of other examples, from Clueless to Fifty Shades of Gray to Jane Austen’s Fight Club (a fanfic mashup)
I guess my point is that fanwank has been going on for centuries, it used to be considered more or less ‘highbrow’ and now it’s regarded as a pop cultural phenomenon. Of course, only the best examples from the past have come down to us, because there was a time that fiction had to get past gate keepers to be preserved, but it seems to be basically the same thing.
Or am I missing something? Is there some serious difference between the two which has escaped me?