13 April 2016

De anoraco comburendo

This Atlantic article by Asher Elbein is well worth a careful read, a careful re-read, and perhaps a critical evaluation. But the thesis it makes: that by taking on the language of ‘canon’, nerd-fandoms have, in a way which is troubling on multiple levels, constructed elaborate religions out of fictional characters and universes, is one which is worth contemplating in-depth.

First, let’s clear the air a bit. I’m a nerd. I enjoy Star Trek, Star Wars, Lord of the Rings (and yes, I’m one of those guys who’s read the Silmarillion and likes the books better than the films), Harry Potter, Firefly, Warehouse 13, Hayao Miyazaki films (and manga), Paul Verhoeven films, Cadillacs & Dinosaurs (the game and the comic books both), Japanese animation of various sorts, the wuxia novels of Jin Yong, and science-fiction books by Lois McMaster Bujold, C. S. Lewis, Isaac Asimov and Terry Pratchett. I’ve had friends recommend to me classic science fiction works by Frank Herbert and William Gibson, and look forward to reading those as well. In addition, I consider myself a devotee of the fiction works of Jonathan Swift, Jane Austen, Dorothy Sayers, Edith Pargeter and Robert Hans van Gulik. And yes, these are all works of fiction that you can invest yourself in heavily – as with all good fiction, each is a world with its own mythos and beloved characters, and none are so aware of this fact than the creators themselves. Think of the amount of time J. R. R. Tolkien spent on the Silmarillion and tell me these things aren’t immersive!

Also, arguments like Elbein’s about how harmful or how dissociative fiction can be for fans in the ‘real world’, go as far back as fiction itself. Think of Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey, and the gentle satire she aimed, through the charming-but-slightly-outlandish credulity of her Gothic-obsessed Romantic heroine Catherine Morland, in the direction of her fellow authoress Ann Radcliffe. As such, I think it would be salutary to take Elbein’s analysis of nerd culture with the much-needed grain of salt that comes with historical perspective. It’s also difficult to tell what exactly Elbein ultimately wants to do here. Is he faulting us-the-fans for being overly-concerned with the ‘reality’ of fictional worlds, or the corporate culture at Disney/Marvel and DC, which figured out it could use this enthusiasm to make lorry-loads of money?

If it’s the latter, then Elbein has a valid point indeed. There is a very real danger in blurring the distinction between fantasy and reality, and a further danger in allowing corporate control over these very public shared fantasies to shape real-world consequences. When he says that ‘when Snyder or Abrams speak about canon, they speak with the weight of Warner Brothers and Disney behind them’, Elbein is making a very worthwhile and incisive commentary on the way we’ve even managed to outsource our fictive imaginations – the very engines which drive fictional creation in the first place – and turn them into a packaged product for consumption, stamped with official seals of approval and watched over by the most stringent possible intellectual property laws. He’s watching critical engagement and reimagination get crowded out, and he doesn’t like it. Nor should he.

If it’s the former, though – if Elbein is simply lambasting fans for being fans – then we start wading into far trickier waters. There’s a noticeable and troubling subtext to Elbein’s writing which itself gives off more than a whiff of Puritanical zeal. To the point where one begins to wonder if he would smoke out the superstition and crypto-Popery of these wicked, ‘vicious’ and ‘toxic’ fans (in whose unenlightened hearts-of-darkness lurk those boogeymen of the Massachusetts imagination, the demons of sexual perversion, now recast as violence and misogyny), drive them all to the stake and purge them with fire. This is, indeed, a genre we’ve seen before. Multiple times, in fact. The idea that someone – someone male and nerdy, in particular – somewhere, might be having fun talking about something fictional, something possibly titillating or even (oh, the scandal!) fun, is so odious to such latter-day Salem judges that it must be stamped out at all costs.

Not that Elbein is the most egregious in this genre – and, as before-stated, Puritanical nerd-bullying might not at all be the intent of his writing this piece. As he himself says, ‘the elevation of corporatised canon to scripture in geek culture is a particular issue’, and it is a real one. The stifling of creativity by a culture concerned only with the money that can be made from it, is a longstanding concern in everything from music to painting to storytelling. But once a creative work is out in the world, it can, does and should take on a life of its own, a world which can and ought to be respected, and not subject to the violence of an ‘infinity of interpretations’. The idea that the ‘only true’ fictional world ‘lives inside your head’ is a good one if it drives exploration and fictive creativity. The problem is that the same thesis, that fiction is only ‘inside your head’, can also be read as though it should stay locked up there and never leave.

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