Sunday, August 24, 2008


How Fan Fiction Can Teach Us a New Way to Read Moby-Dick

Gerry Canavan points out an intriguing discussion on the blog of Henry Jenkins (the Director of the MIT Comparative Media Studies Program) on the topic "How Fan Fiction Can Teach Us a New Way to Read Moby-Dick" (part 2 is here).

In part one Jenkins talks about Ricardo Pitts-Wiley, the Artistic Director of the Mixed Magic Theater, and his work getting incarcerated youth to read Moby-Dick by having them rewrite and update Melville's novel for the 21st century. Here's Pitts-Wiley discussing the experience in an interview with Jenkins.
I had an opportunity--and this was probably the best part of the experience for me--as a teacher to release their imaginations. Boy oh boy, no matter how much I write I'll never be able to fully capture the degree to which their imaginations were released and they released me, too, to say you don't have to play by the ABC game. You don't have to go by the numbers. You can rethink these characters and it's okay, and you can honor them and rethink them at the same time. When we started the writing process, I started by saying, "Pick a character and write a story about the character." They all chose their favorite character in the novel and wrote a story about just their character.

One of the young men who chose Ahab--it was a great story, too! Ahab was at home. He had just come back from a very successful voyage of drug dealing for WhiteThing, his boss. It was so successful that he worried that he was now a threat to the great omnipotent WhiteThing. He was making some decisions that it was time for him to either challenge the boss for control or to get out of the business. He's home, he's got this young wife, she's pregnant, and the drug lord sends agents looking for him. In looking for him, they kill his wife and unborn child. They don't get him. His revenge is based on what they did to him.

Another one chose Elijah, the prophet, and the awful dilemma of being able to see the future and no one believing or understanding what you're trying to tell them. "I'm going to warn you about this, but if don't heed my warning this is what's going to happen," and the awful dilemma that you face. His story was about 9/11. "I'm trying to tell you this is going to happen," and then nobody listened, and how awful he felt that he knew and couldn't stop it.

In part two, Jenkins approaches the subject in a more general sense, using Moby Dick as a specific example of the different ways in which readers engage with a text.

Fans are searching for unrealized potentials in the story that might provide a springboard for their own creative activities. We might identify at least five basic elements in a text that can inspire fan interventions. Learning to read as a fan often involves learning to find such openings for speculation and creative extension. [1]

  • Kernels -- pieces of information introduced into a narrative to hint at a larger world but not fully developed within the story itself. Kernels typically pull us away from the core plot line and introduce other possible stories to explore. For example, consider the meeting between the captains of the Pequod and the Rachel which occurs near the end of Melville's novel (Chapter cxxviii). Captain Gardiner of the Rachel is searching for a missing boat, lost the night before, which has his own son aboard. He solicits Ahab's help in the search. In doing so, he tells Ahab, "For you too have a boy, Captain Ahab - though but a child, and nestling safely at home now - a child of your old age too." The detail is added here to show how much Ahab is turning his back on all that is human in himself. Yet, this one phrase contains the seeds of an entire story of how and why Ahab had a son at such a late age, what kind of father Ahab might have been, and so forth. We may also wonder how Gardiner knows about Ahab's son, since the book describes him as a "stranger." The John Huston film version goes so far as to suggest that Gardiner was also from New Bedford, which opens up the possibility that the two men knew each other in the past. What might their previous relationship have looked like? Were they boyhood friends or bitter rivals? Were their wives sisters or friends? Did the two sons know each other? Might Ahab's wife have baby-sat for Gardiner's son? Soon, we have the seeds of a new story about the relationship between these two men.

  • Holes -- plot elements readers perceive as missing from the narrative but central to their understanding of its characters. Holes typically impact the primary plot. In some cases, "holes" simply reflect the different priorities for writers and readers who may have different motives and interests. For example, consider the story of how Ahab lost his leg. In many ways, this story is central to the trajectory of the novel but we receive only fragmentary bits of information about what actually happened and why this event has had such a transformative impact on Ahab, while other seamen we meet have adjusted more fully to the losses of life and limb that are to be expected in pursuing such a dangerous profession. What assumptions do you make as a reader about who Ahab was -- already a captain, a young crewmember on board some one else's ship -- or where he was when this incident occurred? In fandom, one could imagine a large number of different stories emerging to explain what happened, and each version might reflect a different interpretation of Ahab's character and motives.

  • Contradictions -- Two or more elements in the narrative which, intentionally or unintentionally, suggest alternative possibilities for the characters. Are the characters in Moby-Dick doomed from the start, as might be suggested by the prophecies of Elijah and Gabriel? Does this suggest some model of fate or divine retribution, as might be implied by Father Mapple's sermon about Jonah? Or might we see the characters as exerting a greater control over what happens to them, having the chance to make a choice which might alter the course of events, as is implied by some of the exchanges between Ahab and Starbuck? Different writers could construct different stories from the plot of Moby-Dick depending on how they responded to this core philosophical question about the nature of free will. And we can imagine several stories emerging around the mysterious figure of Elijah. Is Elijah someone gifted with extraordinary visions? Is he a mad man? Does he have a history with Ahab that might allow him insights into the Captain's character and thus allow Elijah to anticipate what choices Ahab is likely to make?

  • Silences -- Elements that were systematically excluded from the narrative with ideological consequences. As Wyn Kelley notes in "Where Are the Women?," many writers have complained about the absence of female characters in Moby-Dick, suggesting that we can not fully understand the world of men without also understanding the experience of women. Some works -- such as the John Huston version -- call attention to the place of women in whaling culture, if only incidentally. Melville hints at this culture only through a few scattered references to the families that Ahab and Starbuck left behind. These references can provide the starting point for a different story, as occurs in Sena Jeter Naslund's novel, Ahab's Wife; we might imagine another version of the story where Ahab was female, as occurs in Moby-Dick: Then and Now, or we might use the plot of Moby-Dick as the starting point for creating a totally different story set in another kind of world where women can play the same kind of roles as the men play in Melville's novel, as occurs in the Battlestar Galactica episode, "Scar."

  • Potentials -- Projections about what might have happened to the characters that extend beyond the borders of the narrative. Many readers finish a novel and find themselves wanting to speculate about "what happens next." As Pugh writes, "Whenever a canon closes, someone somewhere will mourn it enough to reopen it....Even though we may feel that the canonical ending is 'right' artistically, if we liked the story we may still not be ready for it to end, for the characters and milieu that have become real to us to be folded up and put back in the puppeteer's box." For example, we might well wonder what kind of person Ishmael becomes after being rescued. Melville offers us some hints -- even if only because Ishmael chooses to tell this story in the first place. Yet, in our world, someone like Ishmael might be wracked with "survivor guilt," feeling responsibility for the deaths of his friends, or wondering why he alone made it through alive. How might Ishmael have dealt with these powerful emotions? How might these events have changed him from the character we see at the start of the novel? Might we imagine some future romance helping to "comfort" and "nurse" him through his "hurts"?
What's fascinating to me about this discussion is the way it overlaps with a lot of the intertextual/metafictional "fiction about fiction" that I enjoy as a reader, and that I write myself from time to time.

It was probably the influence of Philip Jose Farmer and his "Wold Newton" stories that lead me to that kind of thing, writing between the lines of other stories, searching out linkages between the work of different writers (though the case could be made that early and persistence exposure to the comics work of Roy Thomas probably had a formative influence as well). In the years since I've been just as influenced by the work of Michael Moorcock, Alan Moore, and Kim Newman, all of whom have tilled those same fields, in one way or another (as I've mentioned a time or two).

But maybe my fascination with "between the lines" and "what happens next" was inevitable; Jenkins quotes Michael Chabon talking about the ways in which this kind of thing is almost a function of popular literature itself:
"All enduring popular literature has this open-ended quality, and extends this invitation to the reader to continue, on his or her own, with the adventure....It creates a sense of an infinite horizon of play, an endless game board; it spawns, without trying, a thousand sequels, diagrams, and web sites..."
Jenkins explicitly links the intertextual (for want of a better term) fiction of Farmer, Moorcock, Moore, and Newman (and the various other "sequels by other hands") with fanfiction, citing the work of Sheenagh Pugh to illustrate the linkages:

In her book, The Democratic Art, poet Sheenagh Pugh discusses what motivates large numbers of women to write fan fiction. [3] She suggests that some fans want "more from" the original source material because they felt something was missing and some write because they want "more of" the original source material, because the story raises expectations that are not fulfilled. Pugh discusses stories as addressing two related questions -- "what if" and "what else." Pugh's discussion moves between fans writing about science fiction or cop shows and fans writing about literary classics (for example, Jane Austen's novels). She focuses mostly on the work of amateur writers yet she also acknowledges that a growing number of professional writers are turning their lenses on canonical literature and extending it in new directions. She opens her book, for example, with a discussion of John Reed's Snowball's Chance (2001) which rewrites George Orwell's Animal Farm. Other examples might include Isabelle Allende's Zorro (based on a pulp magazine character), Gregory Maguire's Wicked (The Wizard of Oz), Jean Rhys's Wide Sargasso Sea (Jane Eyre), Tom Stoppard's Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are DeadHamlet), J.M. Coetzee's Foe (Robinson Crusoe), Linda Berdoll's Mr. Darcy Takes a Wife (Pride and Prejudice), Nicholas Meyer's Seven Percent Solution (Sherlock Holmes), Alice Randall's The Wind Done Gone (Gone With the Wind), and Sena Jeter Naslund's Ahab's Wife (Moby-Dick).

While such works are sometimes described as post-modern, such practices run throughout the history of literature and as Abigail Derecho notes, this mode of creative reworking of canonical literature has been a way some female authors have asserted their perspectives onto their culture. [4] If anything, modern conceptions of copyright have slowed down a long-standing tendency of people to retell existing stories. Fan fiction revitalizes that creative impulse, operating in a world where many different people might retell the same story and in the process, expand the range of potential interpretations of the source material.
(I first encountered the argument that fanfiction was traditionally a way that "female authors have asserted their perspectives onto their culture" through Naomi Novik's Organization for Transformative Works. I don't have any reason to doubt that fanfiction has served as a female creative act, both historically and in contemporary times, but at the same time it's clear from my own experience--and that of the writers who inspired me--that fanfiction and its more respectable literary form are not exclusively the purview of women.)

Jenkins raises some intriguing points, some of which I'd not considered before now, and his posts are well worth seeking out for anyone interested in this kind of thing.

fanfiction and its more respectable literary form are not exclusively the purview of women

Not exclusively, but predominantly. Especially the purely fan works that are not works for hire.

Great article, thanks for the link!
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