Posted on | August 24, 2016
This morning, I was reading an interview with writer Svetlana Alexievich. In it, she writes,
We [Russians] are a word-centric country. It’s this Russian tendency to live in an idea or that people tend to live by the word and in the book. There has always been this ingrained idea in people’s minds that books are there to teach you how to live, that they create ideals for you to uphold. Especially in the Soviet times, when they were actually remaking a human being, remaking a person, literature was there as a major tool of support.
After reading that, I made the offhand comment that “You know, maybe part of the reason the United States is so fucked up is because we rejected the idea that literature is there to give us moral guidance and daily rituals. We rejected the idea that stories should be edifying.”
One of my readers responded that I wasn’t far off the mark.
@elfsternberg Some of the advice they give in writing workshops started as a project to avoid sounding socialist: http://www.nytimes.com/2015/11/29/books/review/workshops-of-empire-by-eric-bennett.html
— The Feather (@YellFeat) August 24, 2016
My first reaction was a simple “Holy chao.” Because I was actually right. During the Cold War, the US government covertly sponsored creative writing workshops around the country with the explicit goal of teaching writers guidelines that would discourage “Communist” lines of thought. Since Russian literature was primarily critiques of social ills and didactic tales on how one lived a moral life, these were to be avoided. Personal, concrete, individualistic stories were what Americans writers were to write, and what American editors wanted to buy. Many of the standard mantras of writing, such as the now universal “show, don’t tell,” actually grew out of a conscious effort to teach people how to not Write Like a Communist™.
I thought I was kidding. I wasn’t. Mainstream literature and MFA programs grew out of a desire to spread American values without being seen as imposing an ideology.
The fascinating thing to me was that the guidelines had such weird contradictions. American literature must “Show the wholeness of the human being, one of irreducible and indivisible integrity. The character must be one with a sense of strict conduct.” Yet because the character’s integrity and conduct were so internalized, while the writer was constrained to a shallow showing of the character in action, it became impossible for writers to do more than casually handwave toward the sources of integrity and conduct.
So here’s where I think about fanfiction. I’ve read a lot of fanfiction. And one of my favorite AU (“alternate universe”) settings in the simple “Coffeshop AU.” The Coffeshop AU is simple: take two characters whose lives in the original work are complicated, busy, insane, and generally heroic or tragic, and have them meet in a modern-day coffeeshop. Let the story proceed from there.
I contend that the popularity of the Coffeeshop AU is because it has something modern literature lacks: examples and ruminations on how to be an adult. YA literature manifestly doesn’t do this. To a degree, it may want to show exemplary lives, or it may show the consequences of self-destructive decisions, or it may just show characters struggling to survive the day-to-day of life’s mundane degradations. But it doesn’t teach how one does that.
Fanfiction does. In fanfiction, characters ruminate a lot. They consider their options. Characters tell us what they’re going to do, why they’re going to do it, then they do it, and then they tell us what they did and what the consequences were. To a “modern” reader, these works seem trite and boring. But to a seventeen year old who’s trying to figure out how to date without getting hurt, how to find a job and survive the oncoming train of adult existence, how to deal with the world as it is, fanfiction is the lesson, the playground, and the experiment, all rolled into a cute tale about a Disney Princess, Sherlock Holmes, and a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle. They explain how other people come to the conclusions they do. They get out of the rugged individual and try to come to universals about why human beings are the way they are.
Fanfic is literally an attempt to recover something that was lost: a literature that helps explain to us how we should live.