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Adventures in Public Domain Reading

Adventures in Public Domain Reading

My acquisition of an iPad resulted in me reading my first ever ebook (Cassandra Clare’s Clockwork Angel) followed promptly by my second (Holly Black’s White Cat). Having learned that I enjoy reading ebooks via ibooks, I discovered the collection of free ebooks available on the platform via project Gutenberg. So, I finally read through a few Arthur Conan Doyle books, some Daniel Defoe, and others. Now, reading books written prior to the 20th century isn’t exactly a novel experience for me. My first degree is in English. I took Renaissance literature, I’ve read Paradise Lost and Pilgrim’s Progress and Canterbury Tales and Pride and Prejudice and all those books you read when you do a degree in English. I discovered my love of Daniel Defoe reading Roxana and Moll Flanders. I know very well how many great books are out there.

But this time around, reading them next to modern books on a hypermodern platform, I’m noticing something odd about them. They seem slightly flat. That seems unfair, why would these books feel flat? I thought maybe it had something to do with current expectations of character building. I thought, maybe vie just become accustomed to reaching a particular level of intimacy with a character that wasn’t the fashion before now. But then unpacking that a bit more, I thought it was actually just what mascarades as the illusion of intimacy with a character.

In a 19th century novel, we are fairly intimately enmeshed in the lives of the protagonist. We follow them everywhere. We know most of everything that they do. But somehow that didn’t feel like enough to me. Following them around, hearing all their conversations, accompanying them to meals, it just doesn’t feel like enough.

So then I started to think about all the current fiction I’ve been reading, and what’s going on in the, that’s so different.

For a start, current novels stick to a structure for more tightly. I read a lot of YA, fantasy and science fiction, and these genres all adhere to a pretty strict narrative structure. A protagonist with a mission, a story with a powerful beginning, lots of action in the middle to hold your attention, enemies that have at least some life breathed into them, a crashing, satisfying conclusion. I can’t read anything written in the last 10 years without being hyperaware of now word processing has shaped it. Easy editing, storage, searching, sharing, the relative ease of writing incredible volume that still hangs together as a complete story arc; I don’t imagine any of this would have been so easy and routine without access to a simple word processor. I think about J.R.R. Tolkien and how there’s just no way the detour with Tom Bombadil would have made it past an editor today. And I know he edited a lot, but I don’t think The Lord Of The Rings would have been quite the same book if J.R.R. Had had access to a MacBook and a copy of Scrivener. For nor, it would have been even longer.

But it isn’t only that. I also realized, reading Conan Doyle and Cassie Clare at roughly the same time, that we have very few stories without a Sixth Sense sort of twist to them. I’m hard pressed to think of a single story vie read in the past 10 years that doesn’t have some kind of ancient twist in the latter middle or end of the story. Not just a twist, see, actually a secret hidden in the past of the character that makes everything they’ve done all along suddenly appear in a different light. It not enough anymore to just have a plot; I also need this huge, revealing understory to cast a pall over everything else. I’m used to getting two stories for every story I read. And somehow this dual story surprise is what makes the characters feel more open to me. We don’t just go through a series of events together, which I think has largely been enough to make a good, immersive novel until relatively recently. I also expect to be let into a whole other internal drama, with secrets, betrayals, alternate identities, and shifts so massive there is no going back.

In Harry Potter, we have the relatively simple story of the boy who is a wizard, off to wizarding school; but of course there is the understory about his dead parents and all of their choices and relationships, all of which is in the past but coexists and underscores the progression of the narrative. Couldn’t we have done without it? Would it have seemed even thinner if it had just been a story about the here and now, like Holmes and Watson? Moriarty isn’t revealed to be Sherlock Holmes’ long lost twin brother, tangled in feelings of rejection and jealousy of his brother’s familial support and ability to avoid turning to the dark side. Nor is Moriarty Holmes’ father.

I think my expectation of this deeper explanation, revealed fairly late into a narrative but hinted at along the way, is what makes stories without them feel thin, more surface. I have no idea really why Sauron is so evil in The Lord of the Rings. He just is. Just like Moriarty. Defoe’s Roxana is a sexy criminal, for no apparent reason other than that is simply who she is. Without the big reveal and subsequent rethinking of the entire sequence of events toward the end of the story, I feel as though there’s a sizable chunk of the story left to the imagination. No wonder everyone questions Watson’s devotion to the confirmed bachelor Holmes; we’re used to the other shoe eventually dropping, and if it doesn’t, we’re left to find it and reveal it ourselves.

I love these stories with the twists in them. They’re extremely satisfying. I’ve just never noticed until now that the twists have the effect of simulating a new level of intimacy with the characters and the story, perhaps because I the reader learn something alongside the protagonist. We become confidants rather than merely storyteller and audience. But I think it is illusion, and a powerful one. Can’t an old school narrative filled with descriptions of actions and decisions tell you just as much about a character as learning an old family secret? By all rights, shouldn’t it tell us more?

Fanfiction as Creative Commons

Fanfiction as Creative Commons

She seems to be under the impression that everyone who writes fanfiction wants to be just like her (i.e. a successful published writer named Diana Gabaldon), but because they are just not as dedicated/original/awesome as she is, the best they can do it try to write exactly like her. With her characters and everything. (link)

I’ve been skimming through the great fanfiction debacle. For those not following along, I’ll summarize: Diana Gabaldon, fantasy fiction writer, discovered that a group of fanfiction writers were auctioning off custom-written fanfiction based on her books, with the proceeds going toward the hospital bill of an uninsured breast cancer patient. When Diana Gabaldon caught wind of this situation, she did not like it one little bit. She posted about her opinions of fanfiction in general (not something she’s avoided airing before: she has previously stated that fanfiction is like someone selling your children into white slavery.) She struck a nerve by describing fanfiction as immoral and illegal, and then went on to wax poetic with analogies for fanfiction like “You can’t break into somebody’s house, even if you don’t mean to steal anything. You can’t camp in someone’s backyard without permission, even if you aren’t raising a marijuana crop back there.” And more inflammatory yet: “I wouldn’t like people writing sex fantasies for public consumption about me or members of my family—why would I be all right with them doing it to the intimate creations of my imagination and personality?” The posts themselves, there were three of them in total which garnered a significant number of comments in reaction, have been deleted from Gabaldon’s blog, but have been reproduced for posterity here. Obviously, these words generated a lot of hurt feelings, and many others, fanfiction readers, writers, and published authors alike have weighed in.

What I find so interesting about the whole mess is the basic misunderstanding, summed up so succinctly by one of the commenters on the fandom wank post quoted above: Diana Gabaldon appears to believe that the purpose of writing fanfiction is mimic writers. And perhaps, if understood from this perspective, her reaction makes sense.

In the mid 90s, when I was finishing my undergraduate degree, I did a research project on an oddity that I noticed in journalistic sources during the 19th century; women in factories wearing outfits that would have cost them their entire yearly wage to buy. I wondered what would possess a woman of limited means to buy such an dress, and uncovered a whole paranoid segment of literature where the upper classes were unrelentingly scornful of the working classes who sought to “pass” as above their station. There was a great deal of worrying about this possibility, and certainty that such “greasy silk” would never really convince anyone. Once I started to dig into the working class side, another motive appearedl it wasn’t limited to fancy clothes, either. Furniture and general household objects, all sorts of things, including fake dinners, complete with the rattling of silverware even if they had no food, to keep up appearances. And then I understood; while the upper classes saw their underlings trying to “pass”, the working classes were actually communicating amongst themselves. They were signaling to each other that they were doing okay, doing great, doing better than their neighbours, no matter what their actual circumstances. The upper classes were there only as a metaphor, as the providers of a language of symbols they could use to communicate, not with the upper classes themselves, but with each other.

This is pretty much exactly the same thing that’s going on in fan communities, including the scornful, wealthy observers. While authors see amateurs stealing their work and possibly trying to masquerade as one of them (usually very poorly, laughably poorly, and the wealthy, educated, comfortable elite has no issues announcing that fact loudly and proudly), fan writers are really only communicating within their own group, to each other. What those on the outside of these communities fail to understand is that any one work of fanfiction rarely stands alone. It is part of a larger discussion about who these characters could be, what these places are like, and working through the issues of the moment within the community itself. This is why it’s often possible to track the development of a fandom version of a character regardless of who the writer is. Fandom tropes come and go, objects, jokes, ideas, themes come into style, and within the culture of the fan community. It’s up to each writer to tackle these things in new and creative ways, to contribute to the narrative behind these characters, these ideas: that’s the challenge, that’s the fun of it. It’s not about you, Diana Gabaldon, privileged writer with a comfortable living and no concept of fan community. It’s about us.

Of course, all fan communities are rooted in the original text (whether that text is in fact text, or video, or any other media); that text is the language that everyone understands. It’s the commons from which everyone feeds. All creative work happens on top of that commons, and subtle differences between the canon action and the story presented carries a ton of meaning. These shared language, structure, place, and characters is what brings strangers together, gives them a common location from which to start.

This is exactly how biblical stories are thought to have developed. They would take a standard story that everyone knows (The garden-paradise, the tower of Babel, etc.), and embroider it in a particular way. The way you chose to embroider a known story is where all the politics and challenge is, and demonstrates your take on the story, your comment on the workings of the day. In the story of the garden that we understand as the standard one, Adam and Eve are thrown out of the garden; in another, they walk out of their own accord. These are the decisions that tell you what the author means to say with his version story; are humans powerful or powerless? Are we here because we outsmarted God, or because we are being punished? Should we be proud or humble? The author is communicating something above and beyond the story itself, using the story elements as tools. If you don’t know the base story, you’ll miss the whole point, the meaning behind the differences. You’ll think it’s just a story.

Published writers unfamiliar with this kind of community will say, “go write your own story! Stay out of mine!” which displays a basic misunderstanding of the whole point of fan communities. If we were all writing our own, we wouldn’t have the shared language to work from. I couldn’t read your story and say, “hm, so you think there is the psychological basis to have character X go this way, well, that seems reasonable and I can see where you’re coming from, but it doesn’t resonate with me. I’m going to write something indicating the opposite, which is also reasonable and arguable, as you shall see.” The first writer will project one tiny element in one direction, and another will come along and build on that, pushing boundaries in another way. You can see characters in fandom as great big trees; starting with a trunk in the commons as part of the original work, then branching off as the community wrestles with him, pushing him in different directions. Camps form; some people see a character as essentially one way, and others see the opposite. People from the camps gather and further refine ideas together, with waves of creativity taking them off in new directions altogether from time to time. If everyone were writing their own story, there would only be a single branch. There wouldn’t be a whole community getting together and sorting out all the ways a given character might go, and writing each and every direction.

The original author is largely irrelevant to this entire process. S/he can step in and add some elements, which might make one faction feel triumphant in their “right” interpretation, but many more couldn’t care less. (Most slash fandoms, for example.) Interpretation of canon material springs from the canon material only; if the book leaves arguable room for a character to become a lawyer, or be gay, or be straight, or marry his best friend, then some part of the fandom will celebrate him in that way, no matter what the author says about it or what the author would prefer. Fandom is about the various interpretations of the collective, not the desires of the individual.

While many fanfiction writers want to be published authors one day, and in fact, many former fanfiction writers have indeed gone on to publish their own original work, the majority do not. This is where Gabaldon is so confused; most fanfiction writers write to participate in this larger community of interpretation and imagination, following not only her lead with her characters and her world, but the lead of all the fanfiction writers who had come before and laid the groundwork, establishing rationales and potentialities. A fandom once born tends to feed itself like a brushfire. Many fanfiction writers get into the culture not by reading the original text, but by reading fanfiction, which by its very nature begs the reader to answer it, to add their own layer, to contribute. Characters leave their original stories and live a million other lives through these multiple lenses, picked up and reconsidered, refashioned. No one’s trying to pretend to be Diana Gabaldon; no one thinks they’re version is a replacement for the original, anymore than a branch is a replacement for a trunk. Instead, fan communities face inward, sharing their stories, their ideas, their interpretations with other fans. The creative commons of culture, including books, movies, tv, video games, provides the base layer on which fandoms begin to create their scaffolds, which spawn more and more scaffolds on which to hang a new story every day.

Best. Era. Ever.

Best. Era. Ever.

I was thinking, while reading various articles about twitter, and interactive learning, and participatory culture, and fandoms, that I’m so glad I live when I do. I’m glad I was able to be around to see the birth of things like blogs and virtual worlds and all kinds of interactive applications of the internet. So much is still unformed, undefined; the blessing and curse of the early days of the social internet is that we get to do the defining. We don’t have buck a trend, we get to try out the new stuff and give them meaning to the wider culture. We get to be as imaginative as we can.

That’s so cool.



I wanted to follow up on and extend a recent tweet:

At what point does online sharing become performance? Is it always performance from the start, or does it morph as people start to watch?
11:21 PM Feb 21st from web

I was thinking about the fact that I’m flying out to Drupal4Lib unconference/camp at the Darien Public Library in Connecticut today, and each time I go to a conference where lots of ideas are flying around me, I try to capture the ones that really resonate with me on Twitter. I also use Twitter to respond to speakers when I can’t interrupt them. I use it particularly when I think my opinions will be unpopular or not particularly well accepted. Now that there are a few more people following me on twitter, many of whom I respect a great deal, I’m a bit hesitant to tweet as freely as I want to. As often as I want to. And that hesitation bothers me.

Sure, perhaps I need a little hesitation before I go publishing my ideas and responses and thoughts to the world, right? But I don’t like it. I like sharing, but I’m ambivalent about the general concept of an audience.

I guess deep down I don’t think about online sharing as sharing with an audience until I’m sharing with X number of people. That number isn’t something I’m aware of, I just sense that there is a tipping point in there somewhere.

I have permanent status now (i.e., tenure) , so I’m happier to share this fact: back during the process of dropping out of a phd program in history, I got deeply involved in a fandom community. I wrote a lot. I wrote somewhere around 400K words of fanfiction in the space of about 9 months. It was escapist, particularly to a world where the characters were all generated by someone else, and thus has nothing to do with the devastating and identity-altering reality of my existence. It was nice to inhabit a space where I didn’t exist. Call it a coping mechanism, but I learned more about social networks and technology in aid of collaboration and creativity in that space than I did anywhere else. I have a deep affection for fandom communities and I still try to follow their meanderings. One of the things I learned as part of a fandom community was the power of an audience.

When I started writing in fandom, I did so in total obscurity. I threw myself into writing, something I hadn’t done in years and I really enjoyed. It was like coming out of the darkness into the sunshine. It was incredibly therapeutic. I had been through some difficult times; a terrible break-up, heartbreak, depression, hatred of my program, loneliness, loss of identity. A lot of old feelings resurfaced. Writing was excellent therapy. I had a blog in my own name at the time, but I started a new one with my fandom identity on Livejournal, which was (and still is) the place where fandom congregated. I loved my livejournal. I loved talking about writing process, about ideas, scenes, character motivations; I loved writing about writing. It was profoundly internal, profoundly navel-gazing, and so much fun. I needed to be inside and outside at the same time; I needed to sort out so much but I didn’t want to face in myself. I can’t express how useful this process was; not just writing the fanfiction, but processing the whys and hows and sharing ideas. I had no idea how much of myself I was processing with it. (Easier to see in hindsight.)

My lengthy and frequent blog musings were okay at first. Not at all abnormal in a fandom community. But then I started to attract an audience. I was writing slash (gay romance) fiction revolving around a very popular pairing of characters, so there was a wide audience of readers for what I was so feverishly producing. Fanfiction writers tend to attract an audience, and they generally want to. It’s great to get feedback on what you’re writing. And that feedback is instantaneous. When I finished and posted a story, I would have responses to it within 10 minutes, and 60 or 70 responses within a half hour. (This is not a record: people writing more mainstream fanfiction with heterosexual pairings got far, far more responses than I would.) Many people in fandom have no interest in writing, but write to be a part of the community. Sharing writing is, I would argue, a form of gift exchange. Those of us who wrote a lot were presumably owed a lot in return; the return is feedback, recommendations, reviews, and attention in general. For people like me, noses stuck firmly in their own navels and there just for the sheer therapy/fun of it, this economy completely evaded my notice. I was getting more and more attention for my writing, albeit only from a segment of the fandom itself. I wasn’t at the top of the food chain when it comes to attention-getters, but the attention I received was certainly nothing to sneeze at. By this I mean a registered audience of a few thousand, and an unregistered audience of many more thousands. Not the millions people get with a viral youtube video in 2009, but a few thousand (8 or 9) is quite a bit for any normal individual, particularly back in 2001.

With a fairly large audience, the nature of my livejournal changed. While I still wanted to talk about process and ideas and all this internality that brought me to the community in the first place, somehow it wasn’t okay to do so anymore. With the podium I had, it was understood as incredibly selfish of me to only talk about myself and my own ideas. Suddenly it became important for me to talk about other people’s work at least as often as my own (ideally more often). Now that I think of it, maybe I’ve got this gift economy thing all backwards; what if the economy has nothing to do with the writing and everything to do with the attention? Increasingly I felt pressure to give back; more comments, more reviews, more shout-outs and recommendations; my livejounal couldn’t be my private writing space anymore. It now had to be more outward-looking. I had to give back to my audience, I had to give them the attention they were giving me. I didn’t have the space to just have fun with it anymore. Fun had to benefit others now, I had already got my share. Others, who didn’t have the attention I had, could do what I used to do, writing down their thoughts and sharing ideas with their friends. It was silencing and sad.

A friend of mine had many times the amount of attention that I got, and I saw how it crippled her public posting. Her livejournal had gone from, like mine, being a place to natter on about what she was thinking about and turned more into a means through which to inform her audience of something (updates, teasers for her next chapter, etc.), to discuss other people’s work, the larger themes of the community, and to weigh in on the “right” side of any debate. It became public property.

Perhaps fandom is a unique entity when it comes to relationships with online audiences, but I don’t think it is. This is why I objected to ranking librarian blogs when Walt proposed it. My reaction is over-heated, but this is where I’m coming from. I’m not a high-profile librarian blogger, and I’m planning to keep it that way. I like to be able to muse about whatever I feel like musing about, be that Second Life, or cancer, or the book I’m currently reading, or random conversations with my friends. I want to be able to use twitter in the way that fits best with my personality, too.

So in response to my own question posted above: I think there is a difference between sharing online and having an audience. Sharing online is fun and productive; I love using twitter to record my reactions to things and my epiphanies, because I like to share them with friends and family, and I like to get feedback from people with similiar or radically different opinions. I like their perspectives to shape my epiphanies as they’re being formed. I find that brings my thinking to a higher level. But somehow there’s a line in the sand there, and I’m not sure where it is, between sharing with a group and having an audience. I find the audience gratifying, but oppressive after a certain point. I don’t have the wherewithall to rise above the expectations of a full, demanding audience. Good thing I can twitter and blog in gentle near-obscurity. That’s just how I like it.

Edited to add: Hmmm. This is a pretty good example of what I’m talking about.