Tuesday, January 09, 2018


Cryptic Epigram

There’s a place
Where I can go
When I feel low
When I feel blue
And it’s my mind
And there’s no time
When I’m alone
     John Lennon

Definition of Fan

To be a fan is to be a fan of your good memories of a book or a film or a TV show. The real thing can’t ever live up to those memories. Fans are by definition the audience least capable of deciding if a reboot of a cherished movie or comic book has succeeded.

Definition of Fan

To be a fan is to be preoccupied with actual texts: it is the general reader who is content with his good memories of those texts. You may warmly remember watching Wacky Races when your were six; but I can tell you who won in which episode and point out that the Compact Pussycat was miscoloured for two frames in episode 12. Because they are closely engaged with actual texts, fans can often appear pedantic and hypercritical, but this is really a way of expressing love for the material. Cherished movies or comic books are invariably rebooted by and for fans, and fans are therefore thr only audience capable of judging if a reboot has succeeded.

Definition of Academic

Academic scholarship by definition excludes “good memories” of texts. Indeed, hardly anyone has “good memories” of Paradise Lost, Beowulf or the Pardoner’s Tale in the  Wacky Races sense: our first encounter with those texts is almost always in a classroom; and it is only the texts which we engage with (even though Beowulf and The Canterbury Tales were originally popular works intended for oral performance).

Some text may be studied by both academics and enjoyed by general readers; and the same individual might be an academic in the week but a general reader at the weekend.

One can well imagine a college student excitedly telling her tutor how she laughed out loud at Pride and Prejudice when she first read it, and explaining what sort of a person she imagines Elizabeth Bennet to be; and being told that at college, we don’t care about the Pride and Prejudice you have built in your head, but only about the one which Jane Austen put on the page. But it would the be the student who had been reading Pride and Prejudice as Jane Austen meant it to be read.

One would hope that a good tutor would say: “Excellent. So what we are here to do is to try and understand what Jane Austen did to make Elzabeth Bennet seem so vivid to you.”

To be discussed another time

Does fan fiction engage with fan memory, or does it seek to extend the text? Is the Captain Kirk who is pictured in a romantic relationship with Mr Spock a consensus Kirk based on what we remember of a 50 year old TV show; or is it the closest approximation we can reach to the role William Shatner was actually paying in 1968?

If someone produced a new chapter of the Hobbit that was so textually perfect that a scholar could mistake it for a genuine lost Tolkien manuscript, would that be “fan fiction” or merely “literary fraud”?

To be discussed another time

Role-playing games are the most purely fannish of any activity because they do not have text. All that can ever exist is each participants private memory of the story. Each player independently creates the adventure in his own head. Attempts to “write up this weeks session” invariably end in tears.

Experiment in Criticism

C.S Lewis argued that the “good reader” is the one who attends to the actual text; who re-reads his favorites books and would notice if a single word had been changed. A “bad reader” is one who skim-reads very general and cliched descriptions and makes them the basis for daydreams he has really made up out of his own head. Lewis calls the former process “receiving” and the latter process “using”. If a book can be received by a good reader, it is probably a good book; if a book is merely used by the bad reader, it is probably a bad book.

So for Lewis, the fan and the scholar who engage in textual pedantry may be good readers;  but the fan who fondly remembers things that weren’t even in the book is almost certainly a bad reader.

Lewis was producing a contrarian argument because he was mad at F.R Leavis


Someone who was wrong on the internet once told me that I should think about Jesus — how the little children ran into his arms — before I dared to allege that He sometimes preached about judgment and damnation. When I pointed out that there was not a word in the New Testament about “little children running to Jesus” the Wrong Person said that the text had been changed by Organized Religion, and that if I really knew anything about Jesus it would be obvious to me that little children would have run to him and that he would never have talked about wailing and gnashing of teeth.

At some point, the Wrong Person he had presumably read the Bible; but his memory of it — what he thought ought to be there — had completely overwritten the text.

But religious texts positively demand this kind of emotional and imaginative responses. The person who has stood with the mothers of Jerusalem as they bring their children to Jesus; who has observed the disciple’s stern faces turning them away; and has seen the children’s joy when Jesus overrules them — the person who can tell you what time of year it was and can smell the flowers and the sycamore trees — is unquestionably Doing It Right.

Mark 10:14

If you never danced to All You Need Is Love in 1963 then you can’t possibly understand the point of the Beatles.

If your mother never read The House at Pooh Corner to you when you were a child you can’t ever find your way back to the Hundred Aker Wood.

Only someone who has dumped all the faux nostalgia about the 1960s and the quite disgustingly twee patina that has built up around A.A Milne can be trusted to tell us whether these stories still work as stories and whether these tunes still work as tunes.

They do things exactly the same there

We sometimes like old things just because they are old; if they were new we would think they were rubbish.

When we like an old thing, we are always liking some actual quality in the actual thing: it is impossible to like oldness per se.

Some years ago, Radio 4 transmitted the only surviving episode of Twenty Questions featuring Gilbert Harding. My reaction was “I would love to hear more of this.”

Clearly, what the BBC had transmitted was an antique and a relic: a piece of disposable wireless from a bygone age; and clearly its antiquity and its rarity and its bygone-age-ness were part of the reason I wanted to hear more of it. But I would have liked to have heard more of the thing itself: actual recordings of very posh, very over-educated people, doubtless in evening-wear, un-ironically playing a very silly parlor game. But one of the reasons that I liked the idea of very posh accents and the evening suits and the lack of irony is because they so clearly conjured up a bygone age.

Skip this bit if you have read it before

I quite unironically believe that The Adventures of Superman is the best and most enjoyable version of Superman, and I firmly believe that once the travesty of Man of Steel is forgotten someone will make a film about Superman as he really is is: a 1940s pulp hero.

Part of my enjoyment of the Adventures of Superman comes from the haiku like constraints of the form. It is told entirely in dialog. Each ten minute segment has to resolve a cliff-hanger, advance the plot, and set up a new cliff-hanger. The form emerges for very specific reasons at a very particular moment in the Olden Days: no-one is going to start making radio adventure serials for kids again tomorrow. Part of my enjoyment therefore comes from nostalgia. But I am responding to a nostalgia which is encoded in the texts themselves. The surviving episodes imply, and even depict, the world the were addressed. I was certainly never a child in 1940s America, but I can still respond to the depiction of wholesome family life and wartime spirit which old time radio evokes. I might still respond to it even if “America” and “the 1940s” were entirely fictional creations. (Indeed, I sometimes thing they are.)

Literally the first thing we are told about Star Wars is that we have to watch it through a nostalgic lens.

Some do it with a bitter look, some with a flattering word.

Someone who didn’t much care for detective fiction might still become a Sherlock Holmes fan. They might like the Victorian paraphernalia; but they might also enjoy the process of explaining away contradictions in Conan-Doyle’s text and teasing out new ones — the whole Sherlockian game.

An academic might very well embark on a study of some obscure literary work, not because he liked it, but because it presented a textual problem he wanted to solve. That same academic might very well tell a student “You can enjoy Jane Austen on your own time: what we do here is study it.”

But most people become textually obsessed with fan texts because they do have fond memories of their first encounters with them. We study them now because we loved them then. We fondly remember huddling round our steam powered black and white radios to watch the first season of Torchy the Battery Boy, and we think that closely studying every frame on our multimedia driverless 3D phones will recapture some of that joy.

And of course, it doesn’t. The close study of a text can’t recreate the joy of actually reading the text for the first time; indeed, it may kill whatever joy there ever was.

Fans are very like priests, obsessed with the form of liturgy to make up for the fact that they don’t believe in God any more.

Definition of fan

A fan is someone who is happy for his loved one to live on in his memory, even though he knows that, as the years pass, that memory becomes more and more idealized.

Definition of fan

A fan is someone who is morbidly unable to let go of his loved one, and engages in the endless mummification of the remains; the construction of vast monuments; the preservation of keepsakes and momentos. Which, as the fellow said, only serve to make the dead seem that much more dead.

Optimistic conclusion.

One thing leads to another. You took up Judo when you were 10 because you wanted to play at being a Teenaged Mutant Ninja Turtle. You kept it up when you were 30 because you enjoyed the physical and intellectual challenge. If you had seen The Princess Bride you might just as well have taken up fencing.

I can’t, in fact, every be eight years old again. But the first 100 issues of Spider-Man do, in fact, exist and are easily obtainable.

Closing Epigram

Your holy hearsay is not evidence.
Give me the good news in the present tense.
What happened nineteen hundred years ago
May not have happened.
How am I to know?
So shut your Bibles up and show me how
The Christ you talk about
Is living now. 

Sydney Carter

Final Request for Money


Pete Ashton said...

"Cherished movies or comic books are invariably rebooted by and for fans"

Lots to nod and shake one's head at here, but the above I would take violent issue with. They are rebooted by corporations for money, and fans are used as a fig-leaf to hide this. "Doing it for the fans" is a marketing strategy.

The corporatisation of fandom, and how fans have willingly co-opted themselves into this, is one of the greatest tragedies of Yank/Brit nerd culture, probably since that 1989 Batman movie.

Anyway, this probably isn't what you're talking about, but I felt the urge.

Andrew Rilstone said...

By invariably I obviously mean "sometimes" or "arguably". Runequest isn't my thing, but I have heard Greg Stafford say that the the Orlanthi word for "always" literally translates as "90% of the time". It seems to me at least arguable that Stephen Moffat is a fan of Doctor Who and there are some quite committed DC buffs involved in DC Rebirth. And that some buy-in to the mythos is assumed.

Pete Ashton said...

Then I would add a layer and say the producer-class (of which there are often so many) may hire a fan to do the heavy lifting but will keep them strictly under control.

Mike Taylor said...

Well: I have to admire your strategy here. You avoid the danger of having anyone point out contradictions that have slipped into your essay by constructing it entirely out of contradictions. I am glad this is only the introduction: I hope at some point to find out what you actually think.

Andrew Rilstone said...

I think that there are two possible points of view. :)

Anonymous said...

The Orlanthi all is 85%

But this is just another example of the fan dichotomy - a fan wants their "thing" rebooting to bring it to as many people as possible so all can share this wonderful story/movie/comic/etc.
A fan doesn't want their "thing" to become something consumed by those who do not recognise it's worth - or certainly not aimed at them...

Is the fan criticising a reboot someone defending the original vision of the primary creator, or another person complaining about the Ghostbusters reboot just because it has women in it? And who gets to decide?

SK said...

What about those of us who object to all 'reboots' and 'remakes' on principle (and take a sceptical view of 'sequels' and 'continuations', too, requiring them to prove their worth on their own merits rather than just coasting on whatever loyalty there is for the original) because we would rather that all that time, effort, and creativity (and, most of all, money) went into producing something new?

I'm quite a fan of Paul Feig's collaborations with Melissa McCarthy; I thought Bridesmaids and >Spy were great, and The Heat was okay too. I would definitely watch an original supernatural comedy spoof from that team — a sort of Spy with ghosts. But I refuse to watch a warmed-over version of a film from thirty years ago, whether it has men or women in it.

SK said...

(Actually I suppose we're just the 'Academics' from the article. Question withdrawn.)