I probably wouldn't have written the essay anyway, but my Important and Provocative Ideas have been percolating for weeks about the relationship of fans to original works in various communities (including cosplay cons, gamers, amateur theater, Their Own Archive, the SportsBlog Nation and Pottermore) and now Angélique Kidjo and her album-length cover of Talking Heads' Remain in Light have blown them the fuck up.
How are cover bands related to fanfic? Is Kidjo doing a kind of musical cosplay, and was David Byrne not? What about karaoke? Filking? What about Brahms and the “Variations on a Theme by Handel”, or Rachmaninoff and the “Variations on a Theme of Chopin”? Are those fanfic? If not, what about the dude that did a klezmer arrangement of some music from Undertale? What does transformative mean if we apply it to music, or theater, or visual art—and how is that different now, in digital America, than it was two generations ago, or twenty? Does every generation get the Pentheus/Dionysius fic that it deserves, or does it get the one that it needs?
There's something very deep and powerful in American culture right now involving “fandom”, vaddevah dat is. How does being a fan of a videogame character whose actions you can in part control affect your relationship to the “original work”? How is on-line abuse of actors in The Last Jedi related to the anger among Potterheads about The Crimes of Grindlewald? Is another Superfly a very different matter than another Halloween? Is the film of Ready Player One a transformative work, and if so, does it in itself contradict its own attitudes toward original works? Do people who play DC Comics official tie-in videogames have a set of norms about transformative works, such that they get angry if the videogame writers break them—and are those creators part of that community, such that they know about those norms?
But what I’m really interested in is how people in communities view their relationships to the original works. As an actor in an amateur dramatic society, I view the text—the playscript—as inviolate. We can do whatever we want within that, but we can’t violate the letter of the script. I can invent back story, I can speculate on what happens after the final curtain, I can and indeed must invent relationships with the other characters that the text allows but does not describe. I can even choose to deliver a line as sarcasm, if my director and I think that works. My Malvolio, or my Polonius, or even my Father Jack or my Mister Memory, are in that sense transformative works. They are not what the writer had in mind. They are a combination of the words on the page and my imagination (and my director’s and the other actors’ too). But I am very aware of the limits of that transformation; I would be horrified at the idea of changing the text to suit my characterization, rather than the other way around. I mean, I know that when we cut a Shakespeare play for length or clarity, we do just that, but I would be horrified if the dramaturge cut, oh, I dunno, cut out all the times when people make fun of Polonius behind his back, and then the Polonius in performance was a respected, powerful figure. It could be done, but it would feel like the transformation had gone beyond its limits.
And that feels to me, somehow, as if it is an attitude that it not in tune with the times, or at least not in tune with the times outside the peculiar kind of fandom that puts on theatrical productions that people purchase tickets for. And I think it… inhibits me? constrains me? I think, really, it just interferes with communication when I interact with other communities, or even with the overlapping fandoms that I potentially am in a kind of communion with. And in my analytical way, I’m just interested in it.
You know? But I grab one thread of it, and it goes on for ages, getting tangled up in all the other threads. When is a transformative work viewed as a threat by fans of the original work? How does our relationship with our texts (that is, texts that we can remember first being made) differ from our relationship with inherited texts, and are their communication problems between people from different generations in that sense? Does calling a community a fandom set in place certain norms that are not set if that word isn’t used? How do the norms of one community interact with the norms of a different community?
Transformative art isn’t remotely new, and I don’t claim to have got hold of anything new about it. But I do think that we are, perhaps, seeing something about the way fandom works across community boundaries and across amateur/professional boundaries that is different than it was a generation or two ago. And it’s interesting to me as a person in the world, participating in its art, but it’s also frustrating, because I often feel as if I am not understanding what people are saying about it. You know?
Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,