On the artist – critic relationship, a response to “On Fanfiction, Fandom, and Why Criticism Is Healthy,” by Stitch

This letter serves as a brief response to the excellent editorial recently brought forward by Stitch at Teen Vogue, “On Fanfiction, Fandom and Why Criticism is Healthy.” In it, Stitch puts forward an argument for why there should be space for criticism within fanfiction communities, and I do agree with the general broad strokes of their assertion.

Stitch explores, in much the same vein that I did, how fannishness leans into a sense of enthusiasm that precludes other emotional responses to art being seen as valid and proposes that, again as I have in the past, that critique of an artform represents a legitimate form of art enjoyment. A critic enjoys the act of criticism. However I do have a small dispute with some of Stich’s framing, which I hope they will take in good faith.

Specifically, Stitch does something very common in discussion of “fan” phenomena and imagines fandom as a territory or space. Fandom, in such a structure, is the terrain in which artists responding to a work, critics dissecting it and enthusiasts of an artwork congregate and share their thoughts. The conflict that thus arises is one of belonging. Fans are people who like a thing which is why it seems like critics must fight for a space within fandom. The critical impulse to reveal a piece of media’s secret contours and to, as Lyotard might put it, “work as the sun does when you’re sunbathing or taking grass,” often seems at odds with the enthusiasm of the fan in much the same way that the enthusiasm of a butcher might seem out of place at a meeting of a pot-bellied pig fancier’s club.

I do think this is a mistake – fandom isn’t a place you are so much as a face you present. What’s more, people are dividual and may present different faces at different places and different times. So when I talk about the contradictions between these faces of response to art, please don’t think I’m totalizing any given person to just one of these identities that they must choose like some team. Rather I’m talking about the tensions that occur when engaging with art.

I tend to treat response to art as having three principal faces with the third divided into two sub-modes. The first is indifference. The indifferent response to art could be mild amusement or even strong revulsion but it is a reaction that desires to disengage from the art. It doesn’t find the art something it wants to respond to. The indifferent has no interest in any form of communication with the art.

The second face is the fannish face. This is representative of the person who wants to express enthusiasm for the art. It is something of a limited opposite to the indifferent face except that enthusiasm is the only allowable mode of response. People presenting a fannish face, defined by their absolute enthusiasm for a work, frequently act as gatekeepers and norm-setters. I dislike the extent to which this face has been given precedence in discourse surrounding art, including the extent to which the idea of the “fan” has come to subsume the final face which is that of the artist/critic.

I am uncomfortable with the categories of the fan-artist, the fan-critic or the fan-critic-of-fan-artist. This is because, while there is vast overlap between the revelations of the artist or critic, I find both of these responses to art to be mutually exclusive from fannish totalizing enthusiasm. A fan polices the boundaries of spoilers because the being in the know is one of the perimeters that delineates who may authentically wear the fan face.

An artist authentically presents the face of the artist by doing art. A critic authentically presents the face of the critic by doing critique. Neither of these play nicely with fannish territoriality. Now, again, people are dividual. A person can be a fan and be an artist both. But thy cannot be a fan in the moment they go about creating art. The “fanfiction writer” is thus a misnomer. There’s no fan in their fiction. They are an artist responding to art.

Enter the critic. If we treat (fan)fiction as a form of responsive art, a transformative repetition that takes the familiar elements of the art and creates something new from it, then we approach that non-productive boundary of undifferentiation from which production arises. The artist destroys to create. But this destruction is not uncontrolled. The process of disassembling art, revealing its secrets, spreading out its parts, “like smooth sleeping dolphins,” is the act of critique, which, Lyotard also reminds us, is a form of religious act. I would say it becomes something of a ritual sacrifice, ending the old artwork in a manner that makes space for new growth. While, for some artists, the critique – the moment of sacrifice where the work upon the altar is cut apart and its secrets revealed – is the end, artists must also be critics to create art. They must come to know the secrets of a work to transform it.

Artists are sometimes tricked into believing their passion is equivalent to fannish enthusiasm. Blake understood this intimately when he said, “the reason Milton wrote in fetters when he wrote of Angels and God, and at liberty when of Devils and Hell, is because he was a true poet, and of the Devil’s party without knowing it.” Milton’s fannish enthusiasm for God rings hollow next to the damning critique of the Devil. This is because, as Blake says, Milton was a true poet; and a true artist is also a critic in their nature rather than a fan.

I believe (fan)fiction writers would be well served to remember that they are also critics. If their work creates critique all this means is that the art has broken the barrier of the indifferent face and inspired another person to engage authentically with it. Enthusiasm is a childish aim in the appreciation of art next to the sacred sacrifice of critique and the promethean act of creation. The territory of fandom is an imagined place. The police on the borders are children who, by the act of showing only enthusiasm for art, cannot defend it.

Where there are artists there are also critics. The face of the critic is indivisible from the face of the artist. An artist enjoys their art and so too does a critic enjoy their critique. I derive as much passion, as much joie de vivre from savaging a truly awful art as I do from gushing about a true masterpiece. Excluding the more frightening passions of the critic ultimately only harms artists. (Fan)fiction writers, embrace the satanic critic. You are of our party anyhow.

Fandom is not a family

happy-family-1316701-639x797Ok, I know this one will probably get me some flack but it needs saying, because it’s an idea which has impacted the frames of reference for our current conversations: Famdom is not a family. What this means is that it’s a cop-out to say, “I put up with homophobe uncle John and besides he doesn’t know any better,” as a justification for why we should just accept that our sub-culture will always include bigots.

But what is Fandom if not a family?

Fandom is a loose-knit collection of communities

Seriously, even calling Fandom one community, let alone one family, is a misnomer. There is a professional organization called SFWA, another called the HWA, there are various convention boards and membership lists, and each of these things could be called a community. And some people cross between these groups, some people might be in dozens of these groups, but that doesn’t mean the groups are all one polyglot community.

And this is important, because people can choose who they want in their communities. Part of the core of all this year’s kerfuffle was when, a while back, a certain individual was invited to leave one community (SFWA) after a public meltdown.

Fandom is a sub-culture

With specialized language (mention a SMOF to one of your non-fannish colleagues and see the look of complete unrecognition), dress (not just cosplay either, the ribbons, the pins, they’re dress markers), and interests (obviously) fandom is almost the textbook definition of a sub-culture. And, looked at in this sense we don’t have much choice about who adopts those cultural markers. Anybody can like genre fiction if they want. Anybody can learn the Turkey City Lexicon and the acronyms that get tossed around at cons. Anybody can learn what the in-jokes are and what those damn ribbons mean.

But here’s another example of a sub-culture: punk rock. Now both Jello Biafra and Michale Graves are very much part of the punk rock sub-culture but they probably have almost entirely different takes on politics, philosophy and well… everything. There’s probably nobody who would suggest that the former lead singers of the Dead Kennedys and the Misfits are not real punks; and yet Biafra is a left-anarchist, while Graves is a staunch conservative.

And yet, I doubt anybody would try to talk those two into touring together either.

Fandom is a workplace

Not for everybody, but for lots of people: writers and actors, makers and booksellers. For these people Fandom is where they work. It’s simultaneously built of their suppliers, colleagues and customers, sometimes all in one body.

Now here’s where we can make some progress between the wide-open, anybody can sign on nature of a sub-culture and the much more exclusive nature of specific communities. Because we have a pretty strong understanding of what is acceptable and not acceptable reasons to invite somebody to leave a workplace. And it’s not because you don’t like their politics. But when it crosses a line from, “I disagree with this person,” to, “this person is harassing their co-workers,” then we’ve got a pretty good reason to exclude them.

And this is a pretty good litmus for how to decide what people we want in the Fandom tent. We want the people who don’t:

  • Touch inappropriately, stalk and sexually harass people
  • Threaten people with violence or incite other people to violence
  • Advocating for the extermination of a sub-set of people or for discrimination against people on the basis of inherent traits
  • etc.

And I’m going to say right now that there’s plenty of conservatives who don’t do any of these things. And there are leftists and centerists who do some or all of these things. And how we treat them should not be dependent on their position on a political spectrum but on their actions.

And besides, why do you tolerate bigotry from your relatives?

My relatives are pretty cool so I don’t have much experience with this, though I have to remind certain relatives on occasion that Conservative does not equal stupid or evil; and the thing is I do that even though I disagree entirely with everything Conservativism stands for, because I understand that it’s possible for decent people to disagree wildly.

But if a relative told a racist joke at Thanksgiving dinner, I’d say, “that’s racist. Why would you say that?” Progress depends on us, personally, having the courage of conviction to confront outmoded and harmful discourse.

If you say, “Oh, that’s just Aunt Jane, she’s from another time / some specific place / this or that faith; she doesn’t know any better, bless her heart,” you’re letting that particular thread continue unchallenged. And bigotry should be confronted by all decent people wherever it’s found.

Fandom is my workplace. I come there to network, to sell and to buy. I come there to learn and to teach. Many of my friends are members of the communities that compose fandom, and I’m happy to use the elements of material culture that signify membership in the sub-culture. But it’s not my family. So while I’m happy for the big tent to include communists, anarchists, socialists, liberals, centerists, conservatives and libertarians, I won’t tolerate harassers and unrepentant bigots. A big tent is great, but we can choose what is acceptable behaviour in our group. And if somebody violates that behaviour we can invite them to leave.

What he said

I’ve been banging my head against a bit of a wall in some fandom related discussions for the last few days. Was planning on writing yet another longish piece about prejudicial behaviour and why it needs to stop.

But then I saw this piece from Jim Hines that quite effectively encapsulates everything I really needed to add and hadn’t added in my last post on this topic. So I’m just going to leave it here and say, yeah, what he said.

Oh, with one addition, “But Bob always tries to be colour-blind” doesn’t mean Bob isn’t behaving prejudicially. Colour-blindness would oppose affirmative action programs; and yet affirmative action is a good tool for fighting racism.

Edit: Check out Angry Astronomer’s blog for more details if you’re interested.