ephemeral traces

September 16, 2007

Speranza’s Written By the Victors as Exemplary Fantext

Filed under: fandom,fanfiction — kbusse @ 2:40 am

“Some events do take place but are not true; others are—although they never occurred” (Elie Wiesel)

As some of you may know, I come to fandom studies late and via circuitous (or rather, purely nonacademic fannish) routes. My training’s in postmodern literature, and my academic work before fandom all circled around various versions of the relationship between ethics and aesthetics, literature and Truth, and history and storytelling. I think it is this tenuous hold we tend to have on “truth” and “reality” that has been holding my academic fascination with media fandom, both in its analytic responses to media texts as well as in its (as I’ve argued in my first essay on popslash, Digital Get Down [ETA: This is definitely not one of my better pieces, but it’s the one that addresses the postmodern issue most explicitly]) quite postmodern construction of shared canon. (This is much more obvious in RPF, where fans literally pick and choose what will be considered canon in their interpretive community [1], but the same can be said for FPF as well, given the wealth of text, often created over an extended length of time with multiple writers.)

If fandom itself can be characterized by several postmodern characteristics (including the destabilizing of truth, reality, identity, and consistency) [2], then postmodern fannish narratives who actually thematize these various challenges to a stable modernist world view and its associated closed narrative are particular interesting. In the following, I want to look at a particular story, its reception, and the way both play out and illustrate some of the arguments I’ve made about fanfiction and, in particular, what I want to call the fantext. [3] Much of this is drawn from my presentation at Console-ing Passions 06 (abstract is here) and the following will spoil Speranza’s Written By the Victors as well as all three so far aired seasons of Atlantis.

Written By the Victors (9-05-07) is a novel-length Stargate Atlantis story in which Stargate Command demands that the city of Atlantis leave its current planet in the Pegasus Galaxy and fly to Earth to protect it. Military commander John Sheppard and head of science Rodney McKay (the central slash pairing in the story) rebel against their immediate superior, sending her—and all others who do not side with them—back to Earth, declare Atlantis’s independence, and break with Earth entirely. Becoming supreme but benign ruler of the city, they begin to create a central market place for all of Pegasus, and, as a diplomatic stroke of genius, Sheppard marries his teammate Teyla Emmagen, Pegasus native, to assure his alliance and demonstrate his solidarity with this galaxy rather than his own. A diplomatic envoi from Earth (sent by ship since the stargate remains closed for Earth) studies the thriving colony but is sent back at gunpoint when one of them tries to assassinate Sheppard. With this mission gone awry, Earth attempts to browbeat Atlantis into submission, but Atlantis, which had been preparing for a battle with the evil of that galaxy, suddenly faces a dilemma which they resolve by taking arms against the Earth ships. Whereas the historical Earth documents seem to suggest that Atlantis did not survive that encounter, the story’s Epilogue consists of a variety of future Atlantis documents, clearly indicating that the city survived and its inhabitants thrived. The last two texts are not in English and the final one not in Roman letters and thus leave the reader with an incomprehensible, open ended text.

The events are related mostly chronologically, but consist of multiple accounts, often mutually contradictory, ranging from a variety of academic analyses and eyewitness accounts to some documents and a seemingly more truthful narrative. In so doing, Victors mirrors fannish and academic disputes in analysis and interpretation by asking the reader to weigh the different historical accounts and documents against one another. As I’ve argued before, fan fiction does not consist only of individual works of art but must be approached as a collectively written, highly intertextual, internally contradictory text which is continually being written through the use of various modes of interface. It is this aspect that Victors itself and comments on and illustrates. After all, the story already contains multiple contradictory accounts, different stylistic and generic documents that ask the reader to understand that any true account, any attempt to know what “really” happened, is foreclosed and can only be circumscribed by these multiple sources. The comparison between academic and fannish discourses has been often repeated (and challenged by Matt Hills, for example); however, by presenting proper academic debates over the very subjects fans tend to debate (i.e., were John and Rodney lovers and if yes, when, and how does canon/history support this), Speranza offers us a fictional text that allows us to see the similarities without collapsing the differences.

In fact, even as the text seems to offer us a “truer” version of the events as it juxtaposes the contradictory historians with a third person live action narrative that tells us what “truly” happened, I’d maintain that we are merely offered yet another version of events. After all, the narrative in tight third person is but one point of view and though it allows us to believe in a true corrective of the clearly flawed historical interpretations, it simultaneously—when read within the larger context of varying interpretations of these characters in the multitude of analyses and stories—offers simply yet another version. Even though the story doesn’t signpost the narrative as yet another flawed version that can at best approximate the truth, that can offer but *a* truth, its situatedness within fannish debates as well as its otherwise clearly more complex understanding of historical certainty invites a more critical reading of these sections. This section, of course, looks most like traditional fanfiction and, as such, pretends to offer a more privileged (or possibly even better) account of these characters and their dynamic (if only for the extent of this story), but the existence of thousands of accounts many of which are equally read and cherished and recced indicates that while we may hope to understand these guys *better* than the often thin versions portrayed on screen, we are also all to aware that the very complexity we add is in part the multiple interpretations we know coexist.

As if this polyphonic presentation weren’t enough, the consequent reception of the story has created an amazing array of multi-media artifacts that accompany, comment on, analyze, and illustrate various aspects of this particular universe. In other words, as Victors mirrors not only academic but also fannish behaviors, the story’s reception, in turn, performs the very fannish aspect Speranza is describing in the first place: illustrations, vids, missing scenes, post-scripts, missing Atlantean and other documents and academic analyses thereof, podcasts and the various artifacts sung and recited, and other fannish artifacts all add to and thus expand this fictional universe. Reading the various artistic and theoretical texts as one, we effectively have a multi-authored, multi-threaded, multimedia and multi-generic artifact. In so doing, this co-created fannish space of the story and its extended fantext metonymically illustrates media fandom’s dynamic that the story already mirrored. In a metonymic mise-en-abyme, fandom, SGA fandom, the story’s fandom, and the story itself all reflect one another in their postmodern inability to ascertain one truth or even desire one interpretation.

The Atlantean documents are particularly interesting, since they effectively become part of the larger text by fully embracing its conceit of an independently evolved Atlantian culture whose historians have mythologized the events that to us are (albeit fictional) present. One of the most fascinating pieces is The Iohannes Cash Poem, which presents the image of a manuscript in Atlantean writing and is clearly an old document kept in collection and analyzed in the academic (historical and literary) discussion underneath. Whereas some of the other documents created by fans as Atlantean artifact are completely made up, however, this is, indeed Johnny Cash’s “Walk the Line.” Sheppard is canonically a Cash fan, and the serious discussion that tries to date the poem, track down Iohannes Cash’s Atlantean roots, and ventures to suggest that the poem might be a commission by Sheppard for his lover all are amusing as commentary both on academia (i.e., how much do *we* get wrong in our historical or biographical guessing games) and fandom (we can turn *anything* into a fannish artifact, even a country song), but to see it as a big joke would miss the point: the fannish creation is as heartfelt and careful and beloved as the scholar’s completely ludicrous analysis, i.e., we’re aware of what lengths we go to, but that doesn’t make it any less meaningful. In fact, in response to the poem’s presentation and analysis, another fan offered a liturgical version of the poem.

I’ve spend this much time discussing one particular artifact, because it’s important to not just think of fantext as a whole—even though I do think it’s important to do that as well—but to acknowledge that every single text is already layered and meaningful and intertextual and part of a complex social network, in this case the reception of the show and of the story in turn. But it is that very intertextuality that makes it often difficult to analyze any text independently. Looking at the collected artistic and theoretical writings within a given fandom, we can see how a literary analysis of only a single fan story may be flawed in its restrictedness, how the text when seen as part of a larger whole partakes in creating an artifact whose sum is more than its parts insofar as it illuminates the centrality of intertextuality that suffuses all of fanfiction.
While all of these texts that partake of Speranza’s universe clearly exist within the same story space, I want to suggest that the fantext does something quite similar yet includes all story spaces that one way or another connect to the original source text. Such a text is clearly multi-authored, since every creating fan contributes; it is clearly multi-generic and multimedia insofar as it contains stories, poems, fanvids, fanart, fan manipulations, even audioposts and fannish blogs. Finally, the fantext is a multi-threaded narrative, literally, as readers decide on their own which story recommendation or announcement they might follow, which critical analysis they might read, and metaphorically, since any number of stories return to the same moment in the source text, narrating alternate versions that coexist. As such, the fantext is internally contradictory with parts that at times complement, at others clearly contradict themselves. Just like Victors historical sources conflict, just like the various fannish responses to the text employ multiple genres and media to create a shared universe, so all of fannish responses to a text can be understood as multiple contradictory and complementary narratives all responding to the same source text but also one another.

Given these internal contradictions, one might ask why we should read all of a fandom’s fan creations as one text. After all, we rarely do so with even one author’s entire work [leaving aside such unusual cases like Faulkner whose works purposefully inhabit the same fictional universe]? Unlike most non-fanfiction writing, every single piece of fanfiction, fan commentary, or fanart relies—however loosely—on the same central source text; indeed, fanvids, fan manipulations, icons, or audio pieces tend to actually use parts of the source text itself. As such, the texts inhabit one shared ontological story space—albeit one that encompasses multiple universes. The term fantext implies more than just a joint central text, however. In fact, beyond their obvious intertextuality with the source text, most fan stories are also intertextual with one another. Every fan story is in conversation not only with the source text but usually also with other stories in the fandom and the discussions that permeate the community. As such, it seems useful to not look at a story as if it were a distinct and isolated piece of art but acknowledge its social and communicative aspects. No writing occurs in a vacuum, instead drawing from and responding to previous texts and the writer’s cultural context. Fan stories, however, tend to do so to a much greater degree: they are always a response to the source text, often are produced in communication with several other fans, and likely to be part of a conversation with other stories and discussions. In fact, while some stories are written to last and can be read by anyone unfamiliar with the source text, a large (if not larger) number of stories rely on an audience that is familiar not only with the source text but also with the fantext, or with a specific permutation thereof. More generally, any story that engages and plays with fannish tropes relies on an informed audience. As such, writers negotiate between different interpretations of the characters, their dynamics, and general canon events. Any new implementation is influenced to varying degrees by the show itself, the writers’ personal relationship with the characters and also by fandom’s response in discussions and stories. In fact, one of the most fascinating aspects of the fan community is the way people share ideas, brainstorm together, co-write, beta one another’s stories, the way ideas travel and get picked up in different venues and forms by different fans.

In the case of Victors, for example, even as The Iohannes Cash Poem is clearly a result of the story, it also is in response to the story’s reception, to the source text itself and, possibly, to other fannish artifacts, such as Lim’s Sheppard-focused vid to Cash’s “The Mercy Seat.” In fact, even if the author never saw or heard of the vid, as *I* am reading the poem I recall the story and the vid and any number of Sheppard characterizations along the way. Thus, I want to be really careful, though, not to suggest that every reader has access to and knowledge of the same fantext. Some writers may work from the source text alone, never interacting with other fans while others work from nothing but so-called fanon with no knowledge of the source text whatsoever. Most readers/writers are situated somewhere in between, affecting and being affected by stories, analyses, discussion, and debates. But even when the intertextualities are clearly given (as in the song created for the poem created for the story that rewrites a particular TV show), no two reading experiences are ever alike, in the way every fan reads a different selection of stories in different permutation, thus creating a very personal and idiosyncratic text. One may not even have to read certain stories to make them part of one’s personal fantext; extensive debates and general awareness may be completely sufficient because as others talk about it, we pick up certain ideas and interpretations and controversies. Every reading is ultimately affected by what the reader brings to the text, the individual interpretation of the source text, general knowledge of cultural facts, as well as other stories in the fandom and fannish discussions.

At the same time, the fact that no two fans can ever read the same version of a fantext, that no two fans will have read the exact same stories in the same order, will have participated in the same debate at the same time, indicates an intrinsic interactive aspect of the fantext. Every fan decides which part of the larger fantext she will read or not read, which discussion she will engage in, which stories she’ll reread. If we think of the reader of a traditional hypertext as being able to choose which link to click next, fantext readers have a near infinite number of possibilities as well as the ability to add onto the text, to co-write the fantext. The fantext is not only interactive but everchanging and expanding. The infrastructure of fandom contains archives that collect stories or newsletters and rec lists that link to them, its personal journals and mailing lists that may mix stories, analyses, and personal anecdotes. The fact that the stories are often interspersed with commentary, criticism, and personal random information makes the fantext both more open and dispersed but also more interactive and encompassing. Considering a reader who navigates these various spaces which all add to the overall fantext, we can see the multi-threaded character of the reading process. However, while the fantext’s plots are multithreaded and, at times, mutually exclusive, they all circle back to the same source text and thus exist within the vicinity of one another. [If we were to visualize it, we could think of fan stories as multidimensional clusters around a central source text, where some fan stories may even be situated closer to the center of another source text, picking up tropes and characterizations from elsewhere.]

Another aspect that drives this unceasing interactivity is the fact that most members of the fannish community are both producers and consumers of the fantext. A large number of readers are writers and an even larger number will comment on stories or source texts. Reading a random collection of fan stories thus creates a complicated, often internally contradictory view. Nevertheless, it affords a conceptual experience in which the reader is always already more active not only by virtue of choosing which stories to read or not to read, i.e., which aspect of the fantext to include or reject but also because more than likely this “active reading” quite easily turns into actual contribution—it may simply be a comment analyzing the story and thus adding on to the fantext, but it also may be a story, an illustration, an icon, a podcast, a rec list, a review, any form of active engagement with both source and fantext.

If Written By the Victors illustrates fannish engagement of writing and rewriting canon and our multiple versions thereof, the ultimate question then remains who the victors are in Speranza’s scenario. Clearly, even if we read the non-historian prose narrative not as the actual truths but as yet another version, its presentation gives it a form of primary status. Likewise, the concluding piece, written in Ancient and even in its visual presentation thus purposefully incomprehensible to us, earth-bound and English-speaking readers, suggests that we are not meant to fully comprehend, that we may not be the ones that have the last word—or even understand it. Written By the Victors clearly is meant to suggest a (false?) impression of Earth historians who create and control the story of Atlantis in their historical quibbles, striving for some understanding and semblance of what truly happened. Its ending, however, indicates that the true victors are Atlantis and Sheppard’s Pegasus Galaxy: the writings of the Atlantis historians is different, more metaphorical, less comprehensible, thus hinting that the truth may lie more in narrative and fiction than a desperate attempt to collect and congregate mere factual details. They don’t present an idyllic utopia as they disagree and correct one another, thus recalling Earth historians’ quibbles, but they clearly get the last word and it is both poetic and, in the end, indeterminable and thus open-ended, letting us, the readers, conclude and expand to our hearts’ content.

If we are of Earth and thus unable to read the final Atlantean narrative, we are also of fandom and thus on the side of the story tellers. If we are the academics who analyze and nitpick and debate canon details and interpretations and behold any all too small factual detail and try to make it meaningful in context, we are also the creators who sing songs and write poetry. If the story and its reception is a mirror to the likeness of academia and fandom, it is also a thematic response to its differences: the responses, which playfully embrace the unknown, that revel in the interstices and fill them in with narratives of our own, clearly position themselves with Atlantis, with the uncertainly and ambiguity of song as history rather than academic treatise. If there’s an opposition to be perceived between academia and fandom, the story (and its reception) clearly sides with fandom, because as much as the show creators may think they know what they’re doing, as much as academics may analyze and debate (both the shows and the fans), this story suggests that writing back is the ultimate act of aggression, that appropriating and creating are the tools that will make fans the ones who survive—even if the place of origin never knows about their culture’s vibrancy and richness.


[1] For more on my thoughts on that see the section on “Fiction, Reality, and Collaborative Fantasy Spaces” in my overview on Real People Fiction.

[2] While postmodernism as a critical and aesthetic category is clearly more complex than I have space for here, a simplified (and sadly non-ambiguous) definition would foreground the following aspects as central to postmodern literature and often addressed in fanfiction’s engagement with source texts: (1) truth: If postmodernism embraces a questioning/destabilizing of totalizing master narratives and all-encompassing truths and certainties and places emphasis on the particular, multiple points-of-view, telling the story from unusual perspectives, then fanfiction’s emphasis on the subtext, on substituting or at least supplementing canon functions in similar ways. The existence of multiple contradictory realities, in the form of various fan stories covering the same ground, subverts the concept of truth. Slash, in particular, with its queering of the canon may give voice to othered subjects (or rather allowing them to exist in the first place). (2) reality: Postmodernism foregrounds the various constructions of reality as it disrups clear boundaries between fiction and reality, celebrates recursive narratives, allows characters (and even the RL author) to enter one another’s stories or to shift level of reality. RPF most obviously engages in such reality-questioning discourses, but specific fanfiction genres such as crossovers and fusions also can fall into that category. (3) identity: Postmodernism foregrounds the multiple ways in which identities are constructed, in which we “perform” our identity depending on our environment, how multiple identities exist simultaneously and may conflict; In fanfiction, the very existence of hundreds and thousands of more or less canonical version that coexist already destabilizes clear notions of identity as it shows how the source material can be interpreted in such ways as to allow often extreme and contradictory interpretations of the same character. (4) consistency: Postmodernism revels in disrupting any level of consistency (genre, style, reader expectations, high vs low brow). Obviously, fanfiction’s intertextuality, its reappropriation and recycling of culture, its ludic pla(y)giarism are highly postmodern, but I think if we look at the fantext as this ever-expanding Work in Progress that is inconsistent with itself on all levels, we can really look at fandom as creating exemplary postmodern artifacts.

[3] Fantext in my definition is the ever expanding collection of fannish writings surrounding a given source. It includes fiction, analyses, images, and all other forms of commentary and reflections upon the source text. I believe it makes sense to view it as a single (albeit multi-authored, contradictory, multi-dimensional) text in order to address the complex intertextuality of fan artifacts and allow that complexity to be theorized and analyzed. While not a monolithic entity, I’d argue it makes sense to look at the way a given fan story is intertextually engaged with both the source text (i.e., the show) and the fantext (i.e., everything that has been created within a given interpretive community and thus may have affected the writer’s interpretation, whether purposefully or unconsciously).


  1. As always, your analysis is as good as your source text.

    Comment by Tournevis — September 16, 2007 @ 5:18 pm | Reply

  2. Thanks🙂 I mean, with this story, the argument kind of writes itself, doesn’t it?

    Comment by kbusse — September 16, 2007 @ 6:30 pm | Reply

  3. What’s the difference between Victors and a novel like Dracula. Is it that the contradictions within the latter are less explicit?

    Which is not to say that it couldn’t be useful or at least fun to have a postmodern reading of Dracula–I’m just not sure how useful such a reading would be ethnographically speaking.

    Comment by Alixtii O'Krul — September 22, 2007 @ 7:13 pm | Reply

  4. I think that’s the old “How postmodern is Tristram Shandy” question. And we’re back to authorial intent, aren’t we? : )

    I do think that Dracula functions under the conceit that while we have this wide array of documents, there exists truth that we simply have to find–whereas I’d argue that Victors holds no such belief…it’s really a modernist/postmodernist paradigm, I think! [Speaking of: have you ever read Julad’s QAF story, “The Importance of Being Brian”? It’s marvelous in playing out these oppositions!

    Comment by kbusse — September 22, 2007 @ 7:21 pm | Reply

  5. […] my discussion of the various paratexts contributing to Speranza’sVictor universe here, I argued that “to see it as a big joke would miss the point: the fannish creation is as […]

    Pingback by fannish love and the difference it makes « ephemeral traces — November 15, 2007 @ 3:36 pm | Reply

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