Fan Fiction, Creativity, and the Cluelessness (Again) of Literary Analysis

Vulcan from ST: The Animated Series
In my thesis's introduction, I wrote the following:
Too often, this type of creative involvement is perceived by humanities scholars as a nice but useless side-effect, not the principal response to the arts under discussion. Again and again, they return to the value of a work as a source of historical, sociological, even personal change . . . literature should mean or do something--should feed us in a practical rather than creative way.
Not only do I still see this happening, if I could write my thesis over, I would make this problem my main argument. That is, failure to put the creative impulse first is the main failing of almost all literary analysis. 

To make my point, I'm going to examine some statements made by Constance Penley in her book NASA/TREK: Popular Science and Sex in America (1997). In a way, I feel bad about picking on Penley. The concept behind the book is interesting, and the first half (about NASA) makes for a fascinating read (to borrow the good Vulcan's favorite word). In addition, Penley tries valiantly in the second half of the book to not hide behind her academic persona, especially since the second half delves into the world of slash fiction re: Kirk and Spock. Although her academically minded friends tried to "pretty up" (intellectualize) her interest in this culture, she resists their efforts; throughout her analysis, she refuses to "dumb down" or devalue the female slash writers she came to know (Janice Radway was less successful in her analysis of romances).

Unfortunately, Penley, who is certainly not the first literary analysts to succumb to over-intellectualizing, can't resist the academic impulse to place meaning above creativity; consequently, she misses what I consider to be rather obvious explanations for people's behavior: Issue 1 and Issue 2.

Issue 1

Discussing Spock's "race," Penley writes, "Although [Leslie] Fiedler thinks a man of any color will do to stand in for the fantasy of the Negro, it is significant that the slash fans consistently avoid writing Vulcan culture and history--and Spock's race--as African or African American. They prefer to Orientalize or romanticize the color divide in a strategic yet unconscious evasion of what has historically in the U.S. been the most bitterly contentious racial division."

I had to read that 3 or 4 times. Huh? Come again? Based on a piece of literary analysis, creative writers are supposed to change a character's ethnicity?

Let me back up--one of the unwritten rules of fan fiction is that you can do anything you want as long as you don't violate the sense of that world. That is, you can put characters together "off-screen," but they should still feel/act/seem like the original characters. Otherwise, what's the fun in writing/reading about them? If the characters could be Bob and Frank (rather than Spock and Kirk), why bother?

Many fan fiction readers will assess a piece based on the sense of "Hey, you really captured that (place, relationship)!" The fans want more, but they don't want more generic science fiction or generic lovers. They want more of that specific, particular universe/those particular people.

And Spock isn't Black.
The excellent Tim Russ as Tuvok


Tuvok is, and it would be interesting to know if fan writers about Tuvok have created stories that meet Fiedler's demands. Spock, and Vulcan, however, from Day One were given the look and vibe that Penley partially criticizes. (Can't have Edward Said's dreaded Orientalism going on here! As Eugene remarks, Edward Said's intellectual descendents exhibit "the kind of offense-taking that requires years of expensive education to hone to a meaningless edge.").

It may seem that I am being too literal (Fiedler and Penley are talking about metaphorical Blackness). However, creativity can be surprisingly literal. Vulcan isn't some vague idea in the Trek universe: "Amok Time," "Journey to Babel" and the Animated Series give the planet and culture a definite feel/look.

In fact, Spock does struggle with prejudice in Star Trek and its fan fiction, and the prejudice stems from his race, i.e. being part-human on Vulcan and part-Vulcan (looking like a Romulan) on a ship run mostly by humans. But identifying him with a culture other than the one the initial creators already identified him with is meaningless intellectual blather; it has nothing to do with making the story work.

Issue 2

Penley addresses the discomfort of mainstream Trekkers with slash writers. Mainstream Trekkers, she points out, see themselves as family-friendly, regarding slash writers are antithetical to their family-friendly culture. Penley then claims, "The slash version of Star Trek threatens the Trekkers because it is not only sexually but politically scary, with its overt homoeroticism throwing into sharp relief the usually invisible homosocial underpinnings of Trekdom, the Federation, and U.S. culture."

Actually, I think it's the porn that bothers the family-friendly Trekkers. However, my point here is that in typical literary analysis fashion, Penley bypasses a prior quote (which she at least provides): "It's an insult to Gene Roddenberry's vision."

Keep in mind that fan fiction is not about throwing everything out and starting over. It's about using the place (the Federation, Middle-Earth, Narnia, Pern, Asimov's universe) as a leaping off point to create something else. And there is an ENORMOUS amount of tension amongst fans about how far one can go before that utterly invisible line is crossed (hey, Hollywood, you threw everything out!).

Consider, for instance, the tension between those of us who think Jackson's Hobbit movies capture the essence of Tolkien's vision for Middle Earth (by utilizing all of Tolkien's material) and those who think that the movies have completely missed the essence of the book. We all love Tolkien, but whether or not a creative vision has been kept or violated is a point of great debate.

The issue on the table is not whether or not Jackson properly captured current political tension regarding terrorism and torture or whether he has anything profound to say about sexual politics. I'm not saying that fans don't make those kinds of applications. I'm saying: the issue, "Did he meet our creative demands" comes first, NOT last. 

Like many, many literary analysts, Penley puts the creative need last. What's really going on is this economic-political-sociological problem, and, oh yeah, people also like being creative.

I argue exactly the opposite in my thesis (and really, throughout my blog): devoted fans almost always struggle first over the creative element before going on lastly and tangentially to application and supposed meaning. Are the slash fans violating a creative vision? Do they have the right to do so? Has a line been crossed? Has the universe that the fans love been damaged?

To take this completely out of the realm of name-calling (anyone who thinks Kirk and Spock shouldn't be lovers is a homophobe!), I feel the same way as the Trekkers about X-Files. I adore Mulder and Scully's heterosexual relationship. I also feel absolutely no need to see it "consummated" in fan fiction or anywhere else (I am on Season 7). As far as I'm concerned, Mulder and Scully act like a married couple already; I don't need it proved to me.

I think many Trekkers feel the same about Kirk and Spock. I also consider these creative debates--did I, Robot violate Asimov's vision or retain it (as much as one could expect)? What about the Lemony Snicket movie; can a wry tone be completely translated to film?--far, far more interesting than economic-political-sociological blah-de-blah.

And in the end, far more insightful regarding popular and literary art.

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