Oooh, I’ve been itching to write this one. And I think it’s the perfect re-introduction to me as blogger, rather than me as hopefully semi-adequate teacher.
I’m sure many of you have already seen something about the Annie Proulx thing, wherein Ms. Proulx, who wrote the original short story on which the film Brokeback Mountain was based, has complained to the Wall Street Journal that terrible people out there–these disgusting maggots are sometimes referred to by lesser people as “fans”–have the unmitigated gall to send her fanfiction based on the story/film. Her exact comments:
‘Brokeback Mountain’ has had little effect on my writing life, but is the source of constant irritation in my private life. There are countless people out there who think the story is open range to explore their fantasies and to correct what they see as an unbearably disappointing story. They constantly send ghastly manuscripts and pornish rewrites of the story to me, expecting me to reply with praise and applause for ‘fixing’ the story. They certainly don’t get the message that if you can’t fix it you’ve got to stand it. Most of these ‘fix-it’ tales have the character Ennis finding a husky boyfriend and living happily ever after, or discovering the character Jack is not really dead after all, or having the two men’s children meet and marry, etc., etc. Nearly all of these remedial writers are men, and most of them begin, ‘I’m not gay but….’ They do not understand the original story, they know nothing of copyright infringement—i.e., that the characters Jack Twist and Ennis Del Mar are my intellectual property—and, beneath every mangled rewrite is the unspoken assumption that because they are men they can write this story better than a woman can. They have not a clue that the original ‘Brokeback Mountain’ was part of a collection of stories about Wyoming exploring mores and myths.”
Now, here’s the thing. Ms. Proulx has every right to be upset by the fanfiction; she has the right to feel however she wants to feel about anything at all, of course. Personally, while I don’t read or write fanfic, I think it’s kind of fun and neat. My website gives express permission for fanfic (provided the writer of said fic does two things: 1. Acknowledges my copyright somewhere on the work; and 2. Does not send it to me, because for legal reasons I cannot and will not read it. (Not that anyone is rushing out to write fic set in my worlds, but hey, I figured best to have the policy in place up front.) So while I don’t necessarily agree with her views, I do absolutely agree that she has a right to be upset. And it seems, from some of the reaction I’ve heard from fanficcers, that sending the author of the original work your fiction is frowned upon in fanfic circles. She has a right to be annoyed by this. She has a right to speak so nastily about people who loved her work, if she likes.
But that doesn’t mean she should, and it doesn’t mean that I don’t find the bulk of her comments disgusting, degrading, and pretentious in the extreme.
Let’s start with the most offensive comment. “There are countless people out there who think the story is open range to explore their fantasies…”
Um. What exactly is a story supposed to be, if not fuel for the imagination? If not a view into another world? If not open range to explore fantasties?
A writer cannot, absolutely Can Not, tell people in what way their work should be enjoyed. To attempt to do so is at best rude and at worse highly offensive. We write the story; we send it out into the world. What readers get from it, how they view it and what it says to them, depends entirely on how well we’ve done our jobs and what the reader thinks/feels/has experienced in their lives up to that moment. All we can do is attempt, with each word and image, to convey a certain feeling or emotion. If the fan doesn’t “get” that it’s our failing, not theirs.
For example. In creating Megan Chase and Chess Putnam I attempted to do several things. One of which was to create a strong female characters who weren’t “kick-ass”; someone more like me and the women I know. Strong emotionally/mentally rather than physically; someone who picks their battles. Someone who doesn’t fly off the handle at imagined slights, someone capable of behaving like a professional and not a teenager. Yes, Chess is obviously both more vulnerable and tougher than Megan, but I think both of them are sensible and mature, for the most part, despite their flaws (and flaws are what make a character interesting to me).
I was lucky enough to have quite a few people “get” that. Some of my favorite comments from reviewers were to the effect that Megan was refreshingly mature and clever, that she was realistically strong. I’ve had quite a few early readers and early reviewers who love Chess, who identify with her and feel for her, and genuinely care for her. Those make me feel great. Really, to me, that’s what I strive for. It’s my goal, to make readers care about my characters.
On the other hand, several people felt that Megan seemed weak, that she didn’t stand up to her boss, that she sort of let people walk all over her; what I saw as common sense (you don’t tell your boss to fuck off if you want to keep your job) others saw as wimpiness. Some readers loved Greyson and found him as sexy as I did; others thought he was rude and overbearing. Some people have problems with Chess’s drug use, and feel it isn’t possible for her to be an addict and still be responsible, or it simply turns them off.
And I can’t do anything about that. All I can do is describe these people to the best of my ability and hope people connect with them. For me to insist that there is only one way to interpret their characters, that there is only one way in which to see them, and that way is exactly the way I want them to, is wrong. It turns me into some sort of dictator and my readers into idiots who can’t be trusted to understand me. If they don’t understand that’s MY fault. This is akin to creating a painting and telling people they’re not allowed to feel a certain way when looking at it.
All art is open to interpretation, by its very nature. For Ms. Proulx to insist that it is not, that the opinions, thoughts, feelings, and experiences of readers mean nothing and they should just shut up, is terrible. I don’t like it. It upsets me. Because I’m not just a writer, I’m a reader too. And I have certain tastes and I have certain things I like or dislike and those things color my reading experiences whether I want them to or not. It’s why I love The Caine Mutiny but hated Catch-22. It’s why I adore To Kill a Mockingbird but dislike Catcher in the Rye; I recognize the greatness of both works, but one struck an emotional cord in me and the other left me cold. And if that were not the case, quite frankly, I would not be human.
Then there’s the bit where she calls fanfic copyright infringement. Technically it is, yes. But I think an argument can be made–certainly in this instance–for Fair Use (I think the argument can be made for all fanfic, but really, this is an opinion piece and not a legal treatise). The chances that these writers, these men pouring out their hearts to Annie Proulx–who they think understand them–are posting their stories on the internet are slim; the chances they’re attempting to make money off them are even slimmer. Let’s put it this way. When my husband and I talk we have a tendency to quote movies. A lot. We are perfectly safe in doing so; it is not copyright infringement nor is it plagiarism, because A) it’s something we’re doing in our own home; B) It’s not something we’re doing for profit (important for establishing Fair Use), and C) we are acknowledging that we are not the original creators of those lines. We both know we’re quoting Star Wars or Jaws or Ghostbusters. Were I to write a book with huge swathes of movie dialogue, that would be wrong, but I’ve definitely dropped nods in to my favorite movies here and there in my work; nothing more than a line or two per book, or a name, but still. I think it’s fun. I think it’s fun for readers, too.
But most of all it’s just her attitude. She is rude. She is disdainful. That is not the way to treat people touched by your work. That is not the way to treat people period, frankly, but especially not those who spent time and money on you.
I’d be willing to bet at least some of the people sending her that fanfic, the men saying “I’m not gay but…”, are in fact gay. And didn’t realize it. Didn’t realize it was okay to feel the way they felt. Or perhaps they’re not gay but now think being gay is more acceptable; the story/film made them more comfortable with the idea. Is that really something we should disdain? How many young people out there perhaps gained the strength from that story or that film to be proud of who they are? How many of those people sending her their “ghastly manuscripts” were perhaps (and perhaps wrongly) trying to thank her? Trying to share with her a part of themselves the way they felt she’d shared a part of herself? Do you think any of those people thought to themselves, “I’ll scribble up a shitty story and send it to her to torture her, that will be great!”*evil cackle*? Or do you think those stories were sincere, loving attempts to share something? To touch her the way her work touched them?
If spending time in the online writing community has taught us anything, it’s that people who write badly don’t really know they write badly. I firmly believe the people bothering her with their “ghastly manuscripts” really, honestly think they might be giving her some pleasure in exchange for the pleasure she gave them. Misguided, perhaps. But not deserving of contempt. Nowhere near deserving of contempt.
When people take the time to tell you how much they enjoyed your work, the only correct response is graciousness. You don’t have to squee, you don’t have to visit their houses, you don’t have to read their fanfic, you don’t have to kiss their asses. But you do owe them the same respect which you owe every other person on this planet. The idea that you don’t, simply because how dare they send you something you’re under no obligation to read, is shameful. (I also have a hard time imagining the woman buried under huge piles of this stuff, frankly, but whatever.)
But to my surprise, my opinion is far from the only one. I’ve seen quite a few writers standing up for her, asking if the fact that she’s become famous means she has to just take whatever “garbage” is dished out (the attempts of readers and fans to communicate with writers is “garbage,” apparently. Nice).
No. Of course not. I don’t believe that any more than I believe movie stars are obligated to always smile, sign autographs, or allow their pictures to be taken. They do not. But they also should not respond to the greetings and compliments of fans with “Go fuck yourself, how dare you speak to me!” How hard is it to smile and nod? To say “Thank you”? How hard is it, in an interview, to say not “These morons are a constant source of irritation” but “I love that my work touched people but please, I can’t read the stories they send so if they could stop sending them I would really appreciate it.” She’s not under any obligation to read the stories. She’s under no obligation to sign autographs or reply to letters or anything of that nature. But she is obligated, as are all of us, to be respectful to her fellow human beings, and to be especially respectful to those foolish enough to think compliments–however distastefully they submit them in her eyes–are welcome.
What lies beneath Ms. Proulx’s tirade is not the weariness of someone snowed under by adoration. It’s the arrogance of someone who cannot believe there are people out there who wish her story ended differently, who have their own interpretations of her Pure Work, who dare to think of her as someone who might be pleased to know she touched their lives.
Published writers put their work in the public eye. We write it. We leave it to the world to decide if it’s any good or not. That is the nature of what we do. To declare readers are wrong for doing exactly what they’re supposed to do, and interpret the story through their own lenses, and internalize it, and feel it, is a violation of the sacred trust between writer and reader.
And that’s all. I feel I owe it to the readers to produce the best quality work that I can, and to be gracious when they tell me they enjoyed it and gracious when they tell me they didn’t. There are some who feel all I owe them is the work itself, and nothing more. That my obligation ends the minute I hand in those final edits.
What do you think?