Apology For Criticism
by Lucy Gillam
Apology: 1. Something said or written in defense or justification
of what appears to others wrong, or of what may be liable to disapprobation;
I'm teaching a class this semester called "Reflective Writing." It's a fun class, mostly because I have a terrific group of students (Lucy pauses to wave), but the last assignment is my personal favorite: it calls for a reflective essay in just about anything. The essay is supposed to be a blend of personal experience, personal reflection, and outside information (research). So, since a situation has arisen that I wish to reflect upon, I thought I'd provide an example. There aren't any sources actually cited here, but, well, pretend there are.
About a week ago, on little more than a lark, I threw up a page starting something called the Fanfiction Critics Association. I'd mentioned the then-fictional organization in my mock autobiography here at the Symposium as a joke, but then started thinking that it wasn't such a bad idea. As you may have guessed, I enjoy critical inquiry into fanfic (well, duh), and identifying other like-minded individuals is often difficult. A fair amount of net fandom (I can't speak for non-net fandom, not being involved in it) is deeply hostile towards critical inquiry, especially (I hate to say it) the fandom where I spend the most time (The Sentinel). When I posted the FCA page, it was with the intention of giving people interested in and supportive of critical inquiry a way to identify themselves, with perhaps the vague hope that we might start some conversations somewhere down the line. I really hadn't thought much further than people, as a friend put it, "putting the graphics on their pages and looking cool."
Before I go any further, I want to clarify what I mean by "critical inquiry," since I'll be using it a lot in this piece. Probably the easiest way I can define it is to say "English major stuff," at least where fanfic is concerned. Critical inquiry is the act of bringing a given perspective (often a perspective chosen in advance) to something with the idea of gaining a new understanding of it. This can take the form of a critique aimed at improving a work, of an examination of a recurring trend and what it means/implies, of an examination driven by a particular theory (feminist, Marxist, etc.). I want to stress that critical inquiry does not mean just pointing out the bad. It is true that we often write about the things that bother us, but we just as often write about things that we think are pretty darned neat. The point of critical inquiry is not to limit, to prescribe, to direct, or to change, but to understand.
Now, I am many things, but naive is not one of them. I knew that the idea of the FCA would not be universally applauded, and I waited for the negative reaction. Thus far, I have received only one e-mail objecting to the possibility of an FCA discussion list that would publicly discuss publicly posted fanfic (in fairness, this person told me "several people" had contacted her with concerns).
The bone of contention would seem to be this sentence in the FCA "charter":
Any piece of writing published in a public venue, such
Now, I will confess that while I know this is a somewhat controversial statement, it honestly seems to me like a no-brainer: if you say something publicly, you should expect a public response. Whether one views the 'net as a discussion medium or a publication medium (or, as I do, a combination of the two), it seems patently silly to me to make a piece of writing public, but demand that all response (well, all critical response) be private. I'm not saying I don't understand why someone wouldn't want their writing publicly ripped to shreds. I wouldn't want that, either. And I'm not saying I don't understand not wanting a piece of writing critiqued at all - I have lots of stuff I feel that way about. Mind you, it is all stuffed in my locked file cabinet... What puzzles me is the idea that it is somehow rude to publicly discuss something that has been publicly published.
as a web page, archive, fanzine, or public mailing list, is
subject to public examination and response.
However, I cannot deny that this perspective not only exists in 'net fandom, but is probably more pervasive than is my perspective (although the response to the FCA has led me to wonder if that is actually true). It's a perspective I've run into a lot. Almost every attempt I've made or seen to discuss fanfic on public lists has gotten mired down in the question of whether we should discuss fanfic on public lists. And while my first instinct upon being told "You shouldn't do that!" is to get bitchy and sarcastic (I know: you're shocked), I thought I would put my money where my keyboard is, and attempt some critical inquiry.
The root of the dilemma, it seems to me, lies in two questions: why do we write fanfic, and why do we publish fanfic?
I've asked the question "why do we/you write fanfic?" in several forms in several venues. I should explain that while I've written fiction most of my life, I am by inclination a non-fiction writer, and what fiction writing I do tends more toward character creation than plot (I really suck at plot). I love fanfic, but writing it is not something that comes easily to me (hence my 4 whole stories, those many years ago). So I'm always trying to figure out how other people do so easily something that is very difficult for me.
The various answers I've received more or less boil down to "because it pleases me to do so." Many, many, many writers have pointed out that most people who write a lot write because they can't not write, because something in them demands that they put fingers to keyboard or pen to paper. Whatever skepticism I might have toward that notion disappears every time I get an idea for a Symposium column and try to tell myself, "no, no, dammit, you've written five already!!!"
(As a side note, I've found that most people give this "need to write" credence only in relation to those writing forms we've labeled "creative" - fiction and poetry. The notion that someone might "need" to write an essay the same way others "need" to write a story is not something that I think would even occur to most people, which says a lot about the state of writing education in this country, which I won't get into lest this aside become a full-fledged rant).
But I digress.
So we write because the writing process pleases us. I can accept that. But "because it pleases me" does not answer what I think is the more pertinent question: why do we publish? Why do we send our stories to public lists, public web pages, public archives? Why, having put up our pages, do we submit our URLs to link pages and web rings? All of these acts are designed either to get our fiction to others, or to bring others to our fiction.
This question is easy enough to answer for the professional writer: she publishes so as to get money to support herself by doing something she loves and can't not do anyway, instead of trying to squeeze that something in between the demands of a 9 to 5 job.
But fanfic writers don't get paid. So why do we publish? Why do we spend all that time breaking our stories down into listserv size chunks of ASCII text? Why do we spend all that time putting them into HTML, with pretty graphics and working links? Why do some (I'm thinking webtv here) even re-type whole stories into e-mails?
The initial answers I get to that question are usually "because I wanted to share," or "because I thought others might be interested/get pleasure from it." But those are the sort of answers that, when my students bring them to me, I send them back to dig deeper (yes, my students are often annoyed with me, why do you ask?). Why did you want to share?
And here, I think, is where the critical split occurs.
There are fanfic writers who, regardless of what they do for a living, see writing as integral to their identity, and who see writing as a craft that they are endlessly trying to improve. These writers view a critical examination of their work in much the same light as a "professional" writer might see a review in a prestigious periodical: as indication that their work (either the individual piece or their work as a whole) is good enough and important enough to warrant that kind of attention. A New York Times Book Review of a Stephen King novel might not be particularly favorable to that novel, but its mere existence acknowledges King's standing as an author (when was the last time you saw a Harlequin romance novel reviewed anywhere?). A colleague of mine recently delivered a conference paper on Xena, Warrior Princess. While not everything he said was complimentary (although a great deal of it was), the fact that he would write the paper, and that a major conference would accept it, was proof of the show's cultural import. Likewise, while my recent column on the story "Beach" was not very flattering, I wouldn't have bothered to write it if I didn't see the story and the authors as significant.
This is rampant speculation on my part, but I would hazard that a somewhat goodly number of writers in this category have some experience either in English studies or post-graduate academia of some sort. And no, I don't say that to imply that they're more intelligent (I've been in post-graduate English studies waaaaaaay too long to say something like that), but rather that they have a different view of critical inquiry. In English studies, only the "best" book (and here Lucy refrains from ranting about the canon) are written about. In academia, having someone cite your writing in an article, even if they savage you, is proof that you have "made it." You are now a True Scholar.
This view of critical inquiry, however, is not particularly shared by the culture at large, where "criticism" means negative comments, and non positive comments mean rejection.
Which brings me to the second reason people post fanfic: to belong to a community.
Fandom at large is probably different, but 'net fandom is often dominated by fanfic writers. There are exceptions, of course (Babylon 5 comes to mind, although that probably has a lot to do with the very, well, present 'net presence of the show's creator). With some shows, fandom communities and fanfic communities are nearly interchangeable.
And within fanfic communities, writers are definitely the "in" crowd. This is not particularly surprising: without fanfic writers, fanfic communities could not exist. However, in many of these communities, the writer is privileged to such a degree that the needs of the reader are pretty much always considered secondary. I've been on lists where the threat of a writer ceasing to write (or post) fic has held such power that non writers (or even other writers) are constrained from even disagreeing with said writer in a non fic related discussion.
I'm not going to go into a lengthy discussion of the relative positions of readers and writers; I'll only say that the disparity in their status creates the side effect of making it incredibly difficult for someone to gain entrance (or to feel like they have gained entrance) into a fanfic community without actually writing fanfic. And for some writers, whatever their reasons for writing fanfic, publishing that fanfic on lists and web pages is their key into these communities.
The community at large then often indicates its acceptance of the person with praise for the story. We've all seen the warnings about "discouraging writers" by saying anything negative about a story, a type of story, a story trend, a story genre, a word choice ... ahem. Sorry. Little residual bitterness there - old argument <g>. I've even seen the argument that positive feedback should be more or less automatic when anyone posts a story. I used to ascribe this sentiment to the self-esteem movement (in which praise is awarded regardless of performance in order to boost self-esteem, which will then in theory boost performance). However, I would also argue that it has its roots in the this custom of gaining entry into a community through fiction and being awarded entry through positive feedback.
To these writers, any feedback that isn't 100% positive is not, as above, a sign of acceptance, but rather a rejection, a sign that they have not gained full acceptance in the community. Someone is not fully satisfied with their offering, and thus they have not been fully admitted into the circle. Public critique is even worse, because it makes that rejection known to everyone.
Understanding my own reaction to this viewpoint is not terribly difficult once I understand the viewpoint a little better. Through some minor miracle, it manages to hit about seven different hot spots for me.
First is simply that I'm an academic, in English studies at that, to the core, and my view of critical inquiry has been shaped by eleven, count 'em, eleven years at four different universities. Worse, I'm a rhetorician, and one who subscribes to a school of thought that places high value on dialogue and interaction as a means of both understanding and of constructing the world. The notion that a piece of writing should not be discussed, that discussion and inquiry is somehow rude, goes against some pretty core beliefs for me.
But most of all, I think my reaction stems from my own sense of place in the community. I've spent the last six years in a department with some deep divides between the various disciplines (Literary Studies, Rhetoric and Composition, Creative Writing, and Linguistics). There is a pervasive attitude among many in the Creative Writing program that what they do is "real writing," while the rest of us are engaging in "mere criticism." Even the name "Creative Writing" implies that non-fiction, non poetry is somehow less creative, and certainly less worthy. And I would be lying if I said that didn't raise a pretty angry snarl in me.
This attitude is found in fanfic communities less in the hostility toward criticism than in the very different status of the writer and and the reader (the hostility having more to do, I think, with the reasons discussed above). However, the same privileging of fiction writing over the writing of non-fiction is very apparent in the responses to discussions of fic, responses I discussed in the Symposium's very first column, Winston Was Right. Anyone not liking a story, type of story, story convention, etc., is reminded that no one is forcing them to read it, that they can simply delete it from their mailbox. The "creative" endeavor is protected at all costs.
The critic, however, is not afforded this protection. She is not afforded the understanding that she can't not write, that she has ideas pounding at her brain to be let out. She is not afforded the option of simply carving out her own space, where those who don't like what she does can simply not visit, not read.
At best, she is told to critically examine only those works which are "volunteered," a proposition which seems logical enough, given that there are authors who are looking for critical feedback. But...imagine, if you will, telling a fanfic writer that henceforth, she must only write short dramas. Or telling a slash writer that she could no longer write slash, but must only write gen. The mere suggestion of putting those kinds of limits on the creative endeavor would be greeted with cries of horror. And yet no one thinks twice of putting extreme limits on the creative endeavors of the critic. Critical inquiry is much like fiction in that it certainly can be restricted and directed, but the truly joyous exercises come in flashes of interest and insight.
Of course, one possible response is that the critic is writing about the works of others, which makes her work inherently different and thus subject to different rules. While I understand the argument (not to say agree with), I would find it particularly unfair coming from writers of fanfiction. We all assume in writing and publishing fanfiction that it is ethically acceptable to write about the creations of others, with or without their permission. Yet, again, criticism (which, unlike fanfiction, falls under the legally acceptable use of another's work) is not afforded the same assumption.
Which is why I'm not sure compromise between the two views of criticism is possible, much as I would like there to be. As a community, fandom rejects the notion that we must not angage in the activity (writing and sharing fanfiction) we love so much because others do not like it, or even find it objectionable. We may not ask for their approval, but we do ask to be left alone to carve out our own space, and engage in our activities with like-minded fellows.
Should the FCA develop beyond a statement into some sort of community, I know that there will be those in fandom who will not like it, and who will find its presence threatening. To them, I can only offer this Apology, and hope for peaceful coexistance. This is why I do what I do. I hope it helps.